Roatan isn’t the first place in the Caribbean to make a sport out of killing lionfish. By most accounts this is a Sisyphus work–in the end the lionfish are breeding like mad and the lack of natural predators makes their ultimate dominance of the Roatan marine environment all but certain. No matter how many lionfish are speared by recreational divers on a daily basis on Roatan, these newest aliens are here to stay.
While this certainty might be inevitable, Roatan Marine Park decided to conduct a four day long lionfish spearing competition and restaurant lionfish cook-off. “Lionfish can become a source of protein and reduce pressure on grouper, snapper and eel,” says Ian Drysdale, Honduran representative for the NGO Healthy Reefs for Healthy People initiative.
The Roatan Marine Park sells the yellow sling spears at Lps. 500 which are registered to particular owners who can then go wild killing any lionfish they can get their spear through.
Amongst all this fish-warmongering against the lionfish “invaders” are some voices of skepticism. “I guess I can’t demonize these [lionfish] fish just because they are ‘foreigners,'” says Adam Hunt, a British businessman and artist living in Sandy Bay. “The nature will take care of itself. Leave these lionfish alone,” said Pepper, a long time English resident, at one of the Marine Park meetings. “Try to embrace lionfish and see how that feels,” said Drysdale, voicing the more prevalent opinion on the island that a good lionfish is a dead lionfish, and a well-cooked one if possible.
Roatan is just one of many Caribbean islands facing the dilemma of what to do about the invasive species of lionfish. Some Caribbean islands have embraced lionfish and even include them in their protection umbrella. Other islands allow the hunting of the fish, and a few hold tournaments to raise awareness about the fish and to encourage adding them to individual diets and to the menus of local restaurants.
The February 12-13 and February 19-20 Roatan Marine Park tournament attracted many first-time lionfish spear-fishermen and some expert “fish killers.” Karl Stanley and Luc Pacqin diving with Barefoot Cay came to the tournament with a determination to win, and win big. They dove repeatedly, breathing pure oxygen to recover quickly between dives. The pair tried to combine high-tech diving techniques and strategy to win the title of the most efficient lionfish hunters.
“It’s all a blur,” described Stanley of his day of dives which began at 8am and didn’t stop until 5pm. Stanley found himself diving as deep as 170 feet in pursuit of the spiny fish, an activity that can become compulsive and even addictive. “I speared 28 on one dive; then I saw one more and said … I have enough air, and so descended 30 more feet to get to it,” says Karl Stanley.
Lionfish are unafraid and easy to spot. The spiky fish range in size from just a couple inches to a foot. They don’t really expect any predators and are therefore slow to move. Because they don’t move away when approached, they can be speared from just a couple inches distance. Once speared, the lionfish are pushed into a plastic bucket hauled by one of the divers.
For Stanley and Pacqin it was all about efficiency. “We only caught three [lionfish on that dive]. It was a total waste of time,” says Stanley about the dive the pair did close to the Carnival cruise ship docks.
At the end of the day, victory came not because of advanced diving but on a last ditch effort, snorkeling at the entrance to the Brick Bay channel. Just a dozen minutes before the 5pm cut off, the Barefoot Cay team picked up 10 more lionfish, winning the tournament by nine fish.
When all was said and done, Stanley and Pacqin diving with Barefoot Cay caught the most fish in a single day–177. Team Africa from Subway Watersports came in a close second with 168 fish. Third place went to Carter and Orvill Henry from Anthony’s Kay with 144 fish.
As the tournament progressed one thing became evident: Snorkeling seemed to be the most efficient way to spear lionfish. Without the worry of decompression and equipment failure, snorkelers have the flexibility of spearing the fish and quickly surfacing to place it in a container. Though the creature feels just as comfortable at 1,000 feet, many lionfish can be spotted in just 4-10 feet of water.
One snorkeling team of competitors, Sherman Arch and Herbert Woods from French Cay, said that in one hour they had killed all the 44 lionfish the pair brought in to the Marine Park for the count. “They [Lionfish] were all in about 4-5 feet of water,” said Arch.
For the official count, hundreds of lionfish were poured out of buckets and ice coolers on the wooden deck at Barefoot Cay. The largest lionfish-36.1 cm–was brought in by Reno Jackson and Wilf Stroihl from Atlantic Sea Divers. The smallest fish, recorded at 1.3 grams, was brought in by Nick Bach and Caroline Power. Twenty teams entered the tournament bringing in 1,158 dead lionship–682 fish killed the first weekend and 476 on the second.
Despite their compact, sometimes tiny size, not all lionfish are passive, “waiting for their demise.” The spiky creatures, if unable to find shelter in nearby rock crevices after a spearing attempt, are known to swim at the spear-fisherman who is attacking them. Some put up a fight worthy of miniature lions. To humans the fish’s spike venom is painful but not fatal. “They are fast. If you miss them, they hide. Or they go underneath your belly,” said Luc Pacqin, of Team Barefoot Cay. “One of them went straight at me,” said Pacqin, who ended up being stung, not by one during the hunt, but during the official count of the speared lionfish.
The lionfish, originally from South East Asia, have drifted here from the eastern Caribbean. With 17 toxic spikes which fan out around its body like a mane, the lionfish are confusing not only to humans but to native fish as well. They display their beautiful fins and spikes like flamenco dancers displaying their fans. Because the Caribbean lionfish lack natural predators, they are unafraid of swimmers and snorkelers. Spearing lionfish feels much less like a hunt and more like a slaughter.
While there are efforts to teach groupers, snappers and moray eels to eat the lionfish that have been speared and to eventually develop a habit, this is an uphill battle. Most fish native to Roatan’s waters seem confused about how to react to the new arrival, though many West Bay and West End snappers and groupers already seem used to seeing divers spear and feed lionfish to nearby fish. According to NGO Healthy Reefs the first reported case in the Caribbean of lionfish being eaten by snapper was off Roatan. Still, the lionfish population in these areas is not going down.
Lionfish are considered to be gorge eaters, devouring fish stocks before many can reach maturity. The reef not native to them is quickly depleted of its indigenous dwellers, which quickly transforms the balance of the ecosystem. According to NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), “Due to their population explosion and aggressive behavior, lionfish have the potential to become the most disastrous marine invasion in history by drastically reducing the abundance of coral reef fishes and leaving behind a devastated ecosystem.”
According to researcher Matthew L. Wittenrich, lionfish have a lifespan of 5-10 years and achieve maturity in about two years to begin breeding. Lionfish are haremic: one male will spawn with a group of females. After courting for an entire day, they spawn around midnight. As external spawners, the females rise to the top of the water column to release gelatinous balls of eggs, each containing about 2,000 eggs. The male expels sperm immediately after the female releases her eggs, and the eggs are fertilized as they float in the water.
The egg balls will dissolve after about 24 hours releasing individual eggs that hatch after about 36 hours. These eggs and the newly hatched larvae can drift in ocean currents for 25 to 40 days. That ability makes them such prolific Caribbean island hoppers. Once the hatchlings are large enough to swim, they leave the currents to hide among corals and rocks.