Carl was a guest blogger on Mark Bittman’s column on NY Times.com. This was originally posted on August 27, 2012.
In my last post I described how the lionfish, native to the Indian Ocean and west Pacific, now infest just about every reef and wreck in the west Atlantic from Venezuela to Rhode Island. They might have gotten to the Atlantic in ballast water taken on by trans-oceanic freighters, but most people believe that releases from home aquariums in Florida initially seeded them into the Atlantic. In their new home, their venomous spines make them virtually invulnerable to predators, and their insatiable appetite for juveniles of dozens of species of native reef fishes makes them a scourge. Scientists, divers, and commercial fishers are now beginning to mount a counterattack. But by all accounts, lionfish are here to stay.
From Eleuthera, where we learned lionfish basics from professor Mark Hixon in Part 1, I went to Palm Beach, Florida. There, I joined a lionfish derby spearheaded—so to speak—by the conservation organization Reef.org. As divers shot lionfish, I and our video crew would be shooting the derby for the upcoming PBS television series, Saving the Ocean.
Divers on roughly two dozen boats would be competing for cash prizes: a grand for the boat with the most, $500 for the largest fish of the day, an equal amount for the smallest, and a dollar bounty for each fish on every other boat.
I hopped aboard the Salty Dog with a crew competing from Fort Lauderdale (the eponymous pooch, Jet, was also aboard). Diving in a challenging Gulf Stream current, we searched three reefs at depths of 60 to 80 feet. We saw gratifying numbers of native reef fish and two hawksbill turtles, and a few lionfish. We speared two but missed several.
The greatest skill in fishing is in knowing where the fish will be, and local boats exploited this advantage, out-fishing out-of-town competitors like us. While we caught only those two, the winning crew—targeting a wreck they knew well, in about 100 feet of water—nailed more than 200. In all, the contestants killed well over 1,000 lionfish.
Derbies are only part of the solution, of course. There are now millions of lionfish inhabiting the west Atlantic. However, preliminary studies done to date suggest that when divers targeting lionfish hit a patch of reef or a wreck, they can kill more than half the fish, and the fish they get are the larger-sized half.
Contrary to what we learn as kids about letting the little ones go, it’s the biggest fish that are most valuable to a population. They’re the most prolific breeders. So if you want to hurt a population, target the biggest. With lionfish, it makes a sensible enough eradication strategy. (Unfortunately, most fisheries for most kinds of fish do exactly this, which is a major reason for our widespread fisheries disasters). And of course the biggest fish eat the most. And that’s the main problem with lionfish; that they eat so many kinds of native reef fish.
Later, at the marina, the atmosphere was festive. Coolers overflowed and lionfish arrived by wheelbarrow to the station where scientists measured and counted. Volunteers filleted them, and the deep fryer sizzled. People waited on line for their first taste of lionfish. What they lacked in complicated preparation, they made up for in deep-fried flavor. Reef.org’s Lad Akins, co-author of The Lionfish Cookbook, was on hand, tallying fish and talking recipes.
But a derby is just a derby. If invading lionfish are going to be really controlled and their infestation suppressed, it’s going to take a more concerted, commercialized effort. For a progress report on part of that effort, we’re headed to Mexico next.