Last updated on November 15, 2021
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.
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, invasive fish that has taken over the Caribbean given that it has no natural predators in these waters.
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.
History of the Lionfish Invasion into 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 late 80s and early 90s. For years, the general held belief attributed 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, clustered around the radio with my siblings, grandparents, and parents in our boarded-up house as the house rattled and shook from the storm). Newer reporting, however, indicates the aquarium trade brought the fish over even earlier—NOAA reports lionfish were spotted off of Florida’s coast in the mid-1980s. All reports, however, attribute the invasive lionfish to aquariums in South Florida—whether a hurricane then introduced them to the Caribbean or humans knowingly released them into the waters (the more likely scenario) will remain a mystery forever.
Regardless of how the fish got to the Atlantic and Caribbean waters, the outcome is devastating to the marine ecosystem and coral reefs that are already battling climate change. Because these fish have no known natural predators in the Caribbean, they breed incredibly fast and pose an unparalleled an invasive disruption to biodiversity in these waters. Lionfish are “carnivores that feed on small crustaceans and fish, including the young of important commercial fish species such as snapper and grouper.”
One particularly startling fact:
The lionfish can reduce native fish population by an average of 79% over a 5-week period, hunting in groups and continuing to feed until all the prey in one area have been wiped out.
And think this is a problem limited to the Caribbean? It’s not. In the three decades since the lionfish invasion began, the World Bank now reports this invasive fish has now been spotted all the way from Rhode Island to Brazil.
How to Combat Lionfish: Identify, Kill, and Eat
Lionfish cannot be eliminated using conventional methods, and will likely never be fully eradicated in Caribbean waters. For that reason, new tactics were needed.
In addition to all of the skills I had to learn as a part of my dive course in Utila, I watched the divemasters signal each other and converge with their dive knives out whenever a lionfish was spotted. That was the first approach back in 2010—using the tools they had on hand to help thin the population. Now, divemasters and many divers are all equipped with spearguns—many Caribbean countries have initiated speargun training programs for divers so they can more effectively kill all lionfish spotted on dives.
Spearguns are more effective than dive knives because lionfish have venomous spines on their backs (part of what makes them so hard to control in the Caribbean). Humans stung by a lionfish are likely fine—it’s very painful, but generally not fatal. However, even as a nonfatal sting, many divers now wear gloves when out hunting lionfish to make the kill easier.
In addition to killing the fish, many marine organizations are also addressing this invasion through capture and control methods, ‘Lionfish derbies,’ as well as the creation of marketplaces for lionfish meat. And while some have described lionfish as a delicacy, it’s not a prefered meat by, well, anyone. There are tastier fish. That means the efforts to establish a market for lionfish struggle.
What Does this Mean for the Marine Ecosystem?
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 in many parts of the world.
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 mentioned above, 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?
The ship has sailed on ever eliminating lionfish from the Caribbean and Atlantic waters. Now it’s just about continual population control—left alone, the lionfish could completely wipe out many local fish species. Instead, governments must now monitor and control lionfish populations to keep them at a level where local fish populations can also survive.
Additionally, it’s time to educate; spread the word, and hope it clicks. We humans are causing irreparable harm to our environment, and much of our impact is not reversible. It will forever alter planet earth.