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 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.