Hello Lionfish - Goodbye Reef?

Consider that in 2003 Mary and I stayed a Lighthouse Reef Resort in Belize and did not spot one lionfish in over twenty dives and then in 2005 and again not one lionfish, yet, last week in 3 ½ days of diving aboard the Sun Dancer II we spotted over 50.

Mary and I observed that the lionfish has a tendency to huddle and hunt in groups of three to four. The group will pin their prey with their pectoral fins before swallowing them whole. Recent research by Dr. Mark Hixon and his team from Oregon State University with support from NOAA’s Undersea Research Program (NURP) found that lionfish reduce the net recruitment of coral reef fishes by an estimated 80%. The consequences to the Caribbean eco-system cannot be overemphasized. Dr. Hixon’s team observed one lionfish eating 20 small wrasses during a 30 minute period. Recent studies have disclosed that the small fish that are consumed by the lionfish, (stomach content analysis has documented predation of cleaner fish), if reduced significantly will impact the abundance of reef fish by one-fourth and diversity by one-half.

One may only speculate at this point as to the eventual consequences of the introduction of this invasive super predator and I am most pessimistic about the outcome. Unless something is done to control the population increase, which is highly unlikely, the reef eco-system we know today will be gone in but a few short years.

We were encouraged by and applaud the crew of the Sun Dancer II because they care enough about maintaining the reefs that they are willing to expend time and effort to hunt and collect lionfish from the reef sites. On one site alone 24 lionfish were extracted. For illustrative purposes let’s suppose that these 24 lionfish each ate 20 small cleaner fish a day (we know it is much more but this is to illustrate a point). Each day they collectively would consume 480 cleaner fish and shrimp and over a months time they would consume over 14,000 small fish or shrimp. Clearly a healthy reef cannot survive such an onslaught.

I have not the answer to this problem. Scientists are conducting research on possible ways to control the population; what controls the lionfish population in the Pacific for example and so on. Until we know more there is something that the diving industry can do and that is to join in targeted lionfish control efforts such as lionfish extraction dives and charters. Many divers would be willing to pay for both training and trips for the opportunity to assist with efforts to control lionfish populations. Yet, I am afraid we might have no dive industry leadership willing to undertake such bold and controversial initiatives in this politically correct world.

The Lionfish Hunt Aboard the Sun Dancer II

Simon Marsh, Captain of the Sun Dancer II, was clearly on the hunt about 40 feet below me. Methodically moving from crevice to crevice he would pause and quickly engage a target his spotter had identified only moments before. I caught his attention and held up three fingers, indicating the number of lionfish clustered in one hole in front of me.

Simon swam up clutching a short three prong gig or spear with a rubber sling in one hand and a bag and pike in the other. He moved in slowly so as not to frighten the lionfish and cleanly shot it then speared it on to the spike and moved in to repeat the process on the other two lionfish. Two of the three were captured on the pike and then he pulled out a pair of shears to cut the poisonous spines from the fish before bagging them.

Once on board they were bagged in water to be frozen and sent to a research facility in Miami for study.

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