Allies in the Lionfish War

I hunt Lionfish.

A spearing of the invasive, and predatory Lionfish.

This introduced invasive predator is the scourge of the Caribbean, and if reports are to be believed the Mediterranean as well. Although it's total eradication is impossible, they are able to lay in excess of 20,000 eggs at a time every few weeks, some control can be maintained in areas regularly hunted.Hailing from the Indo-Pacific The Lionfish has no natural predators in the Caribbean, save local scuba divers.

My hunting ground is an site dubbed “Texas”, an underwater plateau with an area in excess of 100 acres at a depth of 60 to 150 feet, in the Roatan Marine Park, off the western tip of the island. Texas is not a regular dive-site for customers, and a little off the beaten track for island tour operators, but with my high-level personal connections it has almost become my exclusive hunting territory.

The dive site “TEXAS”, with our 50 foot dive boat at the bottom right corner.

The dive site “TEXAS”, with our 50 foot dive boat at the bottom right corner.

Hunting was good. The Lionfish, not used to seeing scuba divers or spears, were easy prey and bringing back a dozen from a dive was pretty common. The local fish quickly caught on to what was going on, and after stealing a taste of lionfish soon become constant companions. Snappers and groupers seem to recognize the spear and will dart in to try to steal a meal before you can get your catch stored.

The Lionfish are gone. Not totally, but the days of dropping in most anywhere on the Texas plateau and coming back with a half a dozen or more lionfish are over. Now one or two, if any may be sighted by the group over the course of a dive. Although humble by nature (unfortunately there isn't room in this tiny BLOG to explore this further), I got to thinking that I was controlling this environmental threat single handedly! After all we are a small group that dives this out of the way site regularly, the Lionfish aren't overly migratory, and most of the group are photographers, leaving the hunting to yours truly, and there are less Lionfish!

Just prior to scheduling an international press conference to (humbly) proclaim my accomplishment, I got to thinking that perhaps my observation of the smallest percentage of this area for 40 minutes of any given week may not be giving me the whole picture.

The endangered Nassau Grouper.

The endangered Nassau Grouper.

Due to nutrient bearing currents and extremely healthy reef structure, Texas (the dive site) is the home and breeding area for more than a few different species of fish, among them the endangered Nassau Grouper. Over fished elsewhere close to extinction we are fortunate to be near a large resident population and they are prevalent at the dive site year round. They are especially noticeable during the breeding season with males fighting for territory, and females making nesting sites and guarding them.

A Nassau Grouper not taking “NO” for an answer!

These groupers weighing up to 35 lbs are serious contenders for your catch when you spear a Lionfish. There is usually a snapper or two around when you are hunting hoping for an escaped morsel, but the Nassau grouper will barge in aggressively outta nowhere and grab your Lionfish like a martini's olive off a toothpick, and with a chomp or two the Lionfish disappears with a total disdain for its venomous spines. We don't feed the bears. Caught Lionfish are contained in an acrylic tube container called the Zoo-Keeper, it has an iris type opening at one end where you stuff your catch and this opening pulls the fish off your spear as you remove it. It just takes a couple of seconds to bag your game but this is enough for a Nassau grouper to make his move! I have had a Lionfish robbed by one of these guys who then turned around and tried to bite his way through the acrylic tube to get at the fish I already caught! These groupers know these fish and are not intimidated by their protective spines. I am of the opinion that the endangered Nassau grouper has become a Lionfish predator.

Another likely candidate on the Lionfish eradication front is the Moray Eel. Almost blind, these large predatory eels reaching up to eight feet in length and armed with two sets of jaws inhabit the caves, crooks, and crannies of the coral reef, a favorite hiding place of the Lionfish, especially the juveniles where they must be providing tid-bit munchies for these large green residents. We see very few juvenile Lionfish now compared to the start of this invasion eight years ago, and we are very aware of the Moray's ability to sniff out these fish.

Has the war been won? Sadly, no. Reports from Karl Stanley of the Roatan Institute of Deepsea Exploration have large lionfish populations sighted at depths of 200 to 600 feet, well outta the reach of responsible scuba divers. We are also hearing that the Lionfish are out and about at night, having switched to swing-shift, they may be migrating shallower at night in search of prey. This bears further examination, and a trip is planned shortly to see what the dark has to offer.