I have posted often about hunting lionfish and the Belize lionfish invasion. Lionfish were first spotted at Glover’s Reef in the winter of 2009. We heard about them in an article online, and notified our island staff. Within days, they spotted the first lionfish; it was uncanny. Since that time, we have actively pursued them with spearguns while snorkeling to keep their numbers down as much as we can. We actually have very good success near our island. Many times we go snorkeling to one of the reefs we frequent with eager first-time spearfishermen and we come home empty-handed.

Lionfish hunting in Belize
Our guide Magdeleno Yacab spearing a lionfish. Video by Rick Pratt.

Lionfish were first introduced into the Atlantic Basin (they are a Pacific fish) in the 1980s through the US aquarium fish trade. It is suspected that lionfish were released into the ocean by aquarium owners looking to get rid of their fish because of a move or other reason. Since that time they have invaded from North Carolina to South America, including the whole of the Gulf of Mexico. When they finally reached the Caribbean, they reached all corners of this suboceanic basin in less than five years.

There are several reasons that lionfish are such a problem. First, they have no predators. Their would-be natural predators don’t recognize them as food; they look like no fish native to the Atlantic. This is why one of the recommended deterrents is to spearfish them and then feed the freshly injured fish to eels, shark, groupers, etc. Most of the lionfish we see are only about 8-10″ long, but they can grow to a size of 19-20″. Second, they reproduce exponentially. They have a wide range of temperatures and depths that they thrive in, and they become sexually mature in less than one year, and they can live to be 20 years old or more. A single laying lionfish can spawn over 2 million eggs/year!!!! The larval duration, eggs to fish, is only 25 days.

Finally, they are voracious eaters. A few lionfish can decimate the fish population at a given patch reef. They can reach densities of over 200 adults per acre. When caught and gutted, up to ten fish or more are usually found within their digestive tract.

All of this adds up to the fact that if you spear one lionfish, you save as many as 50,000 fish per year.

Not only are the fish a disaster for the reef fish populations, but it has even affected our life on the island. We do not feed fish like they do at other resorts. If you go to Shark Ray Alley off Ambergris Caye for example, the shark and rays come up to you. This is obviously not their natural behavior, they would normally avoid people. But they want to get the easy food, often they are fed Wonder Bread! So the snorkelers and divers at Ambergris don’t get to see fish acting naturally. Instead the fish follow them around, begging.

I have seen so many amazing things while snorkeling: like Horse Conch sex (!), Horse Conch laying egg sacs, and lobster swimming in mid water like a bullet trying to evade detection. Once I almost swam into the mouth of a giant eel, his head was bigger than mine! I have surprised an octopus seemingly sunning himself on the coral reef before darting away into a hole when he finally spotted me. None of these wonders could have been witnessed if we fed the fish. This is one of the truly fantastic things about Glover’s Reef, the fish populations are un-altered by human intervention. You could never observe natural behavior at Ambergris Caye because of the proliferation of feeding.

But now, we are instructed to feed the fish with the speared lionfish to teach the predators to eat them. So suddenly, the fish are following us around. This actually hasn’t happened yet snorkeling, but I hear it does happen diving. This is extremely disconcerting. The lionfish are actually affecting our ability to observe the behavior of the big creatures while diving at Glover’s Reef, and someday this will likely extend to snorkeling.

So when you go to the Caribbean, anywhere in the Caribbean, if you see lionfish on the menu, order it!

For more in-depth information about lionfish, visit Lionfish University, an excellent site promoting education and culling of lionfish throughout the Atlantic.

We have blogged about the invasive lionfish a number of times, but this New York Times article by Carl Safina sheds an entirely unique perspective on the crisis.

Carl Safina is founder of Blue Ocean Institute at Stony Brook University and a MacArthur Fellow. His books include “A Sea in Flames: The Deepwater Horizon Oil Blowout,” and “The View From Lazy Point; A Natural Year in an Unnatural World,” which won the  2012 Orion Award. His series “Saving the Ocean” will be premiering this fall on PBS television.

Mr. Safina also has a reputation as a super fisherman. In this, the fourth in a series of New York Times articles about the invasive lionfish, he writes about a fascinating new theory on how, or why, the lionfish invasion of the Atlantic and Caribbean has succeeded.

 

Over the course of the last week, our “Saving the Ocean” video crew touched shores and reefs of the Bahamas, Florida and Mexico. Each time we landed on the sea floor, we quickly found lionfish. How could they have spread in the Atlantic so quickly after being nonexistent here just 20 years ago?

 

Something that keeps them in check in their native Indian Ocean and west Pacific haunts is missing here. It’s often the case that invaders transported to new haunts quickly build to plague-like levels. But I have an additional thought in this case. Before widespread overfishing, Atlantic reefs held enormous numbers of fishes of dozens of species. They all managed to find enough food to support themselves. With so many fish depleted by our hooks, nets and traps, all the food that once made groupers, snappers, sea basses and others was available to go elsewhere.

Lionfish may be, in that sense, the incarnation of all the other fish we’ve already eaten. How they’re overdoing it just might reflect, at least in part, how we’ve overdone it.

Last week we served lionfish on our Belize island. Our island is in a Marine Reserve, and fishing is prohibited by guests except for catch-and-release sportfishing. But lionfish are the exception. Lionfish are a Pacific fish and only recently got introduced to the Caribbean. They have no predators are are voracious eaters. They are a problem. We have blogged about this before: http://belizeadventure.com/2011/07/lionfish-an-invasive-species-in-belize/

We are doing our part, and dang it was tasty!

Lionfish for breakfast!

Our island is located off the coast of Belize at Glover’s Reef Atoll, a National Marine Reserve. In order to protect the marine life there, the Belize government has prohibited fishing at Glover’s reef for tourists except for sport fishing, or catch-and-release. The only exception is if you are a native and own one of the few fishing licenses issued for Glover’s Reef.

There is one other exception: lionfish — anyone can spear them because they are an invasive species from the Pacific Ocean (the Caribbean is an Atlantic sea). Lionfish are very detrimental to the native species population, and killing them is encouraged. Watch this short video of our guide, Victor Myers, spearing one.

The lionfish, native to the Indo-Pacific region, have infiltrated their way into the Caribbean. Their introduction is believed to be a result of hurricanes and tank releases during the early 1990’s. They have been spotted along the eastern seaboard spanning as far north as Rhode Island to as far south as Columbia. Protected by venomous spines, lionfish are voracious predators. When hunting, they herd and corner their prey using their pectoral fins, then quickly strike and swallow their prey whole. With few known natural predators, the lionfish poses a major threat to coral reef ecosystems in the Caribbean region by decreasing survival of a wide range of native reef animals via both predation and competition. While native grouper may prey on lionfish, they have been overfished and therefore unlikely to significantly reduce the effects of invasive lionfish on coral reef communities.

Help us do something about this problem! Bring your spear gun with you on one of our island trips!

If you’ve ever wondered what our guests experience while visiting Long Caye in Belize, this 35 min. video, shot by one of our guests and posted on Youtube last October, is a true, full immersion experience. The clarity of the photography is amazing, especially the close-ups of the reef and associated marine life through the crystal clear water.

 

Last March I wrote about fishing for lionfish on our island, Long Caye at Glover’s Reef. Glover’s Reef is a protected Marine Reserve, and therefore fishing is prohibited (except catch-and-release for sport fishermen). The only fish you can catch and keep is lionfish. This is because these fish are non-native and a very recent arrival in the Caribbean, as this is a Pacific fish. Lionfish are a major problem, they are voracious eaters and are spreading rapidly. We are doing what we can, for the first time in years we are taking spearguns on snorkel expeditions. Sometimes we feed them to the eels, and we have been experimenting with lionfish as a culinary delight! View our post from last March.

Asha Agnish, a two-time return guest, just sent me an article from the New York Times about this very subject! Answer for Invasive Species: Put It on a Plate and Eat It It seems that once again, great minds think alike. Our blog was just a tiny bit ahead of the New York Times! Thanks Asha!

A few weeks ago we wrote about spearfishing for lionfish, our newest sport on our island in Belize. Lionfish were introduced to the Atlantic basin recently, and arrived at Glover’s Reef just 2 years ago. Now there is a Caribbean-wide mission to keep their numbers down, as they have no natural predators since they are a Pacific fish. They will eventually eat all of the coral fishes in the small area that they take for their territory.

Our staff have been experimenting with preparing lionfish for the table. Victor has a great idea for lionfish cooked with lemongrass and served with fresh coconut slivers in lieu of noodles (both growing on the island). Here are some shots of Victor with a recent harvest.