Scourge of the Lionfish, Part 2: Counterattack

September 6th, 2012 | 1 Comment
Fish, Fishing & Fishermen, PBS Television Show: "Saving the Ocean"

Carl was a guest blogger on Mark Bittman’s column on NY This was originally posted on August 27, 2012.

A hefty lionfish from Palm Beach, Florida

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 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.

A wheelbarrowful of lionfish awaits tallying

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.

Lining up for free samples, Florida Style

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.’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.





Lad Akins drags a coolerful of lionfish to the counting table

Like it says

Baby reef fish taken from a lionfish stomach

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One Response to “Scourge of the Lionfish, Part 2: Counterattack”

  1. Dr Safina,
    I applaud your work on this subject that has slipped by mainstream media outlets. I have created an organization to go after lionfish everyday of the year through out the areas surrounding the Atlantic Basin. In our cases, research is not the primary concern, the daily aggressive removal of fish is the primary focus. There have been Lionfish Derbies put on in the Bahamas that have caught as many as 2,957 fish by 15 boats with 60 dives in 2011,but this was a one day event. I realized that if an organization was started to go after this invader on a daily basis there truly could be a dynamic reduction in the population numbers of this, as I refer to them “Reef Killers” This group will also act as a clearing house for lionfish removal programs around the Gulf of Mexico and the State of Florida.
    I would recommend that you and your film crew go to the Cayman Islands to show the program that is in place there. I have contacts in the Caymans that reach from the Department of Environment, which oversee’s the cullers (as the lionfish hunters are called) to the Cayman Island Tourist Association that oversees the culling program, and the restaurant and local merchants involvement in a complete and very sucessful removal program. I would be more than happy to help with your program if needed.
    Let me explain why I am using the Cayman Islands culling program.
    #1 The government of the Caymans runs free classes in safe lionfish capture methods and licenses the cullers ( free and indefinite license)
    #2 The government provides a spear or Hawaiian sling type spear after a background check of the culler ( free, but $20.00 donation requested)
    #3 Government maintains record of cullers and requires catch information be provided to the agency
    #4 The CITA(Cayman Island Tourist Association) works with the dive and tour operators to provide trips to cull lionfish
    #5 The local restaurants purchase the catch fro the culling trips to serve in their establishments
    #6 The local Foster’s Food Stores sell the catch from the culling trips in their seafood departments
    #7 The local communities are invloved in the removals as customers of the restaurants andnas cullers and supporters of the removal program
    There are more points that work together to make this an ideal program if you would be interested in contacting me,I would be happy to go over them with you.
    Please contact me at [email protected] or you can call me at 813-468-0181
    I look forward to hearing from you,
    Michael Coggins
    Lionfish Removal Project, Inc.
    A Florida Non-Profit Organization

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