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

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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.

Diving Utila Honduras
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 Utila Honduras
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?Pink Coral in Utila, Honduras

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.

12 thoughts on “A Little Exotic Pet Trade…Can We Undo the Harm?”

  1. This is really too bad that such a pretty looking fish cause imbalance in the new habitat for them, resulting they got to be killed, or the native ones will be suffering. Not only for pretty fish, I will be sad for the ugly ones too.

    • It is such a shame that they have to be killed like this…but the good news
      is that the local fish shops are trying to start up a market for them
      because they taste pretty good…so perhaps they wont just be senselessly
      killed but at least eaten.

  2. It's truly sad to see this kind of devastation when traveling. Thanks for sharing Shannon and spreading the word!

    We're looking forward to doing some diving when we get to Asia.

    • Thanks for weighing in – I'll also be in Asia soon and I have hopes of
      seeing the lionfish in a positive light and in their actual homes! :-)

  3. It's a shame they have to be killed, but I guess handing out little boxes to catch them all is a bit too much effort. I like lionfish too, one of the more interesting looking fish down there.

    • There are areas in the Caribbean that have put a bounty on the live ones and
      encouraging catching them in nets…but they are multiplying so fast that
      killing has become one of the only real solutions..but I hear they taste
      pretty good, so at least they are getting eaten in many cases!

  4. Once again, we human beings are responsible for irrevocably damaging a natural ecosystem. We really are the most problematic species on Earth. Thanks for bringing awareness to this issue, Shannon.

    • It's sad to see the devastation that we can and have caused all over the
      world, over and over again, and yet there is so little awareness…we just
      keep doing it! Thanks for reading and sharing :-)

  5. Lionfish are really cool! It's sad that due to this problem, they now have to kill them. On a semi-related note, some people from my hostel went cage diving with sharks today. While it seems to be a popular travel activity, I had to listen as fish were dangled near the cage so the shark would bash up against it. I would much rather these people enjoy the sharks from the boat, or even more exciting, scuba dive with the sharks!

    • I can't help but think that the fish in the cage diving makes the sharks
      only more aggressive toward humans?! As for scuba diving – I hear that there
      is a place of the coast of Nicaragua where the guys has a perfect track
      record of taking divers down with the sharks…that sounds pretty awesome!

      • Yeah, I had a friend that did it in Mozambique- it sounds cool and much less intrusive. And you make a good point with the aggression issue…


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