A Little Adrift

A Little Exotic Pet Trade…Can We Undo the Harm?

As I was jumping, wiggling, tugging and contorting my body into a ballet of ridiculous postures to pull the wetsuit over my damp skin my instructor and I went over our plan for the day’s dives as he also explained some of the fish I was about to see.

Divers swimming over the Honduran reef system

Trumpet fish and crabs, eel, barracuda, and a toad fish—they were the guaranteed sightings in the warm waters off the coast of Honduras that I hadn’t yet seen. But Ethan didn’t mention the lionfish until after the first two dives and two separate lionfish sightings.

Or should I say the “evil-lionfish” as the divemasters on Utila so fondly refer to these non-native fish.

As is so often the case on my travels what I think is the story or the adventure is just never the case. Although I was pursuing my Advanced Divers certification what struck me hard about the week of diving was the concern that grew every day among the locals as lionfish sightings increased on every dive trip.

The Lionfish Invades Caribbean Waters

Lionfish are actually very pretty, just dangerous in Caribbean waters

The lionfish is a non-native fish from the Indian Pacific waters that was brought to the Atlantic and Caribbean waters through the aquarium and exotic pet trade in the early 90’s. For years now the general held belief attributes the sudden spread of this fish to Hurricane Andrew busting open a huge seawall aquarium in Southern Florida back in 1992 (a hurricane I actually vividly remember sitting through, cloistered around the radio with my sibblings, grandparents, and parents in our boarded-up house as the house rattled and shook from the storm). Newer reports indicate the aquarium trade may have brought the fish over even earlier.

Regardless of how the fish got to the Atlantic and Caribbean waters, the outcome is devastating to the region because these fish have no known natural predators and are breeding incredibly fast – an invasive disruption to the ecosystem in the region.

So in addition to all of the skills I had to learn as a part of my dive course I watched the divemasters signal each other and converge with their dive knives out whenever a lionfish was spotted. By now (it’s been a few months) the divemasters are all equipped with spear guns—they had just completed their training so that they could specifically kill all lionfish spotted on dives.

What Does All of this Mean?

The lionfish problem hit close to home not only because I love to dive, but also because the problem started in Florida with the exotic pet trade. Last year Vagabondish released a piece about the disruption that the exotic snake trade has had on the Everglades ecosystem (also in Florida) and then I think about the poor tiger population as black market demand for tiger parts continues while China celebrates the Year of the Tiger (ThePlanetD noticed the effects on tigers in India earlier this year).

Global warming is one of those controversial topics that can be poo-pooed and debated away by some (the cyclical nature of climate and all of that which I will not get into here) but there is no denying that we have done this. In all three cases humans have created the issues and it’s a result of the exotic and illegal pet trades – our desire for that which is so very foreign and different than what we have.

It’s actually a bit like travel, I travel to experience other cultures and bring them closer to my understanding…perhaps for some these exotic animals are a way to bring what’s foreign right into their homes?

So what do we do?

All I could come up with is education; spread the word and hope it clicks because transporting these exotic species to other parts of the world is just not working out too well for us.