This is the time of year when I would normally throw away all clothing items except sarongs and bikinis, and head off to the tropics. But this year I had to go and open a bar. Instead of packing my dive gear, I’m spending my days tasting through wines and beers, and looking at quesadilla analytics in my till system. Tough life, I know, but still I’m feeling a bit nostalgic for my dive life in Mexico! So here’s a piece I wrote about lionfish safaris, spear-fishing with my huntress friends to rid the reefs of this invasive species.
I caught up with marine ecologist Cassie Doneys at Takata Dive and Research Centre in Mahahual to get the low down on how the lionfish came to ravage the Caribbean. Cassie tells me that lionfish were first spotted in the Atlantic in 1985 in Florida, and since then they’ve been spotted as far north as Bermuda and all along the continental edge of the Caribbean from Mexico to Venezuela. “This could be the worst marine invasion in history,” she says. These fish are only limited by temperatures below 10° C, and have been seen by submarines at depths of 300m.
Lionfish are native to the Indo-Pacific, and there are several theories about how they got to the Atlantic. A popular aquarium fish, they could have been released by home owners, or by a tropical storm that damaged a large Florida aquarium. They could also travel in the hold of cargo ships coming from the Indo-Pacific. “Those theories are probably all true,” Cassie says, “and now they are one of the greatest stresses affecting communities in the food chain.”
In the Indo-Pacific they are predators, but also prey. Natural predators in their native territory include sharks, cornetfish, grouper, eels, frogfish, and other scorpionfish. There is speculation that some snapper and triggerfish eat lionfish in their native habitat. In the Caribbean, lionfish is at the top of the food chain, alongside sharks, rays, and groupers.
The fish are notoriously hard to eradicate, Cassie says that their growth rate even reached 700% in some areas. Their breeding season lasts all year, and each female releases 30,000-40,000 eggs per month. Equipped with venomous spines, and not having evolved with the local ecosystem, the fish have very few predators in the Atlantic.
They are a major threat to the food chain because they decrease the survival rate of native fish through competition and predation. Studies show that the survival rate of native fishes is severely decreased through intense predation on juveniles. Lionfish also tackle key species of reef fish such as parrotfish, which feed primarily on algae.
With no apparent predators in the Caribbean, humans are trying to manage the population by eating them. Local chefs are serving up lionfish from high end restaurants to lionfish ’n chips on the boardwalk.
In order for a sustainable decrease in lionfish, fishing pressure has to be maintained. In Mahahual, nearly every time you go for a dive you bring your spear. We use Hawaiiana (Hawaiian slings) to catch the fish without damaging the reef the way a speargun would. The three-pronged spear is small, it extends to catch the fish on a line.
Once you’ve caught them, you spear them through the head to make sure they’re not suffering, and then you string them along a line to carry them throughout the rest of the dive.
It’s a firm textured white flaky fish with a mild, slightly buttery flavour, well suited to any number of dishes and taking on the flavour of whatever it’s served with. Many restaurants advertise lionfish as a dish and are happy to tell the story. The most popular way of eating lionfish in Mahahual is ceviche. After every dive, while most are cleaning the gear, there is always one person delegated to running to the shop to pick up limes, tomatoes, cilantro, and onion to make salsa mexicana.
Despite the fact that I ate it nearly every day, I never actually managed to take a photo of the ceviche… because…. Mahahual….