The Invasion of Roatan

We are in the midst of an invasion and onslaught by an alien species here in the Caribbean. It has become all too common to see these spiked and bizarrely colored beings hovering in space with squadrons corralling innocent inhabitants together to move in slowly, and suck up the victims one at a time stuffing their constantly ravenous gullets. Having decimated the population in one area, they leave the barren landscape behind, and leisurely make their way to the next neighborhood to repeat the slaughter.

This invasion couldn’t be more dramatic if H.G. Wells and  Orson Welles had got together and dreamt it up themselves, nor could the aliens look more bizarre. We are speaking of the introduction of the invasive species Pterois volitans and Pterois miles, the Lionfish, to the mid-Atlantic western shore and surrounding waters. Blame seems to rest on the aquarium industry for the initial introduction in Floridian waters. It is quite possible that one of the millions of fish jailers in the world having to dispose of his inmates chose the “humanitarian” route and dumped at least one breeding pair into his local Atlantic waters in the 1980s.

Stomach contents of one Lionfish.

Stomach contents of one Lionfish.

This pair finding themselves in totally foreign waters, their original habitat being Indonesia, waltzed into a sea with an abundant food supply, and no naturally occurring predators. When it comes to propagating the species and fulfilling the prime directive this pair entered into a virtual garden of Eden- for Lionfish. With over 70 species of fish, and many invertebrates to feed on in waters of perfect temperature, and absolutely no natural predators, earnest feeding, and the ever-inevitable reproduction ensued.

Capable of eating prey up to half their body length (they can reach 19 inches in length), lionfish prey on commercially, recreationally, and ecologically important species. Lionfish populations can reach densities of 200 adults per acre, and consume close to a half a million fish per acre, per year. On heavily infested sites the Lionfish have consumed 90% of the native species, and continue to eat.

Predicted range, before it's all said and done.

Predicted range, before it's all said and done.

Second only to its voracious appetite and consumption abilities, are its prolific reproduction efforts. Reaching sexual maturity at the tender age of one, lionfish (in pairs) reproduce every 4 days year-round releasing two clutches containing 12 to 15 thousand eggs on the water’s surface to be dispersed by the wind and waves. A single female can produce two million eggs per year, and live for decades.   Able to tolerate temperatures 10-30C (50-95F) their prospective range would be the Atlantic Coast from New Jersey to Uruguay, including the Caribbean Sea, and the Gulf of Mexico. At this writing, they are well on their way with their northern boundary reached, and extending south to Venezuela, and throughout the Caribbean.

Add to this this unique list of attributes the fact that the Lionfish packs an impressive array of poisonous spines which it uses in its own defense. Located on their back (13), pectoral (1 ea.), and anal (3) fins, these feathery protuberances pack a needle-sharp spike from which the least puncture of your skin can bring about intense pain. Coming in contact with a tip of the spines pushes the feathery cover down the shaft compressing venom glands and transferring poison to the wound via grooves running along the outside ofthe spine. While some folks are hyper-sensitive to these injuries and with any sign of respiratory distress, grand mal seizures, or lapsing into a coma would make consideration of professional medical treatment appropriate, for most it is just a bit of unending intense, throbbing pain for half a day, followed by localized swelling and a tad of  edema. To treat a Lionfish sting, remove foreign material, clean the wound, soak the wound in hot as you can stand water (120F should do) to break down the poison’s proteins, apply topical antibiotic ointment, and consider a tetanus booster.

One of the first invaders. Photo- Mickey Charteris

One of the first invaders.

Photo- Mickey Charteris

Here on Roatan we heard the Lionfish were coming for a couple of years before we actually saw one, not really believing the stories. Then in about 2009 the inevitable day arrived, and one of our resident Instructors, Shona, came back from a dive with a picture of a juvenile Lionfish. A cute little bugger really, all tiny, and frilly, and exotic looking. How could this be considered a threat? Still with the learned experiences of starlings, blackberries, and kudzu behind us we bowed to the inevitable, and started scamming on eradication.

We thought these would work....

We thought these would work....

The diminutive size of the lionfish’s debut ambassadors had us wondering how to kill these guys. Deceptively fast and maneuverable, spearing something so small was out, so we brainstormed contraptions like hand operated vacuums or slurp-guns, and perforated jars or fine mesh nets as capture containers. Then, as we engineered and refined our capture techniques to respond to this juvenile invasion, we were invited to a lionfish cook-off down the street.

...but we had to switch to a five gallon size

...but we had to switch to a five gallon size

It seemed that it took only a month from witnessing the first tiny juvenile until we were seeing (what we thought) fully mature representatives on the reef. The Roatan Marine Park administration, charged with policing the protected waters of Roatan, quickly changed its no tolerance rule on spearfishing, and started licensing local dive professionals to use small Hawaiian-sling style spears to harvest the increasing invasion. Hunting contests and cook-offs ensued. It turned out that the smallish fish were quite tasty served as ceviche, or pan-frying the little fillets. The flesh is white, firm, and flakey with a mild flavor that lends itself to more dishes than Bubba Gump has for shrimp.

With increasing numbers of Lionfish being reported and the expressed desire of many of the Marine Park’s guests to help with the management of the invasion, a Lionfish hunting license program was implemented where guests can go, receive training and a rule-compliant spear, and then go mano a mano with this tasty invader. There is no size, or bag limit!

9 out of 10 bovines support Lionfish eradication, and cuisine.

9 out of 10 bovines support Lionfish eradication, and cuisine.

It has been eight years now since I saw my first Lionfish on Roatan. They are still around, but the foretold carnage we were expecting has not really manifested itself here in the reef of the West End area, as it has on other areas of Roatan, and the Caribbean. This end of the island is bordered by the barrier reef which contains in excess of 50 regularly used dive-site moorings, some within 100 meters of each other. Dive professionals and licensed guests patrol these sites daily in the course of their regular dives, and Lionfish are killed on sight. We are happy to report that in this area sightings of Lionfish are getting infrequent and mentionable, and we still kill them at will.

Perhaps another reason the inundation here is not as bad as other places in the Caribbean is because of how the island is situated and the prevailing trade winds. These winds, “The Trades”, are the norm here on Roatan and blow almost constantly from east to west putting the West End of the island in the leeward wind shadow. With this the Lionfish eggs produced and floating on the surface from all the locations east of here are blown around the island, and eastward to the coast of mainland Central America, taking the eggs, and a lot of non-blog related plastic with it.

This doesn’t mean the battle is over, far from it. The Caribbean reefs are changed forever, and there is no going back. The best we can do is try to minimize the damage and continue to monitor, and kill these fish. With the smaller numbers in the local area we are offering hunting trips to the eastern end of the island, on the north shore where the protection of the wind-shadow is less, and populations of the lionfish prosper. On a recent trip to the Big Bight area two hunters on one dive brought back 16 Lionfish yielding about 4 pounds of meat. They are getting bigger.

There has been some groupers observed hunting also.

There has been some groupers observed hunting also.

Another anecdotal observation that offers some hope is that we are not seeing a lot of juvenile Lionfish any more. They are still there, and annoyingly hard to spear, but the numbers seem to be diminished from past observations. It is our hope that there is starting to be some impact from local predators. The Green Moray, and Nurse Shark would be likely candidates, along with the grouper and snapper which seem to recognize divers with spears and follow them looking to steal freshly stabbed Lionfish.

We are doing what we can, and the battle continues, at least we have a tasty adversary.