The long way home: Hunting lionfish in the Caribbean
Special to the Bonanza
EDITOR’S NOTE: “The long way home” is a recurring feature in the North Lake Tahoe Bonanza penned by John Peltier, a 1998 Incline High School grad who went on to fly fighter jets for the Air Force after college. After 10 years of service and two deployments to Afghanistan, he chose for his next adventure a circumnavigation of South America by sailboat. This third installment was written during John’s time recently the Caribbean and the British Virgin Islands. Currently, John is in en route to Antigua.
Visitors and residents of Lake Tahoe are more than likely familiar with invasive species — giant goldfish?! And if you’ve lived in Tahoe long enough, you’ve probably been witness to the destructive forces behind the bark beetles, Eurasian Watermilfoil (weed), and Asian Clams. Trees are dead and water clarity and quality are declining.
Now my educational background is in engineering, aviation, and security, so I won’t pretend to be an expert on the subject. This is my disclaimer — I’m a pilot by trade, not a biologist, no matter how hard I try to make the connection.
For some time I have known that lionfish were wreaking havoc in Atlantic and Caribbean waters after being unintentionally introduced to the ecosystem decades ago. But I didn’t know the extent of the damage, just that some big poisonous fish was living where nature didn’t intend it to live. A part of not caring about the problem was that I didn’t live there.
Lionfish have claimed a significant foothold in every reef in the Caribbean. It’s speculated that some fish, native to the Indian and Pacific oceans, escaped tanks in Florida during Hurricane Andrew, and soon afterward were documented up and down the eastern seaboard, followed by the Caribbean.
A single female can lay up to 2 million eggs per year, reproducing every four days. They have no natural predators in the region (aside from grouper, which are over-fished and incapable of controlling lionfish populations). And they have an incredible appetite for virtually every species of Atlantic fish, consuming up to twenty in a 30-minute period, fish up to two-thirds their own length.
The decline in these native fish has some big consequences in a fragile ecosystem, from the creation of coral reefs to our own economy. Scientists say a single lionfish can cause a 79 percent decline in small fish populations in just five weeks.
I was surprised while diving with various dive operators in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. Upon seeing a lionfish, the divemaster would signal for me to come over and take a picture of it.
It was akin to someone from the TRPA saying “look at these quagga mussels on the hull of this boat! Take a picture of these guys, they’re really special here!” and then allowing the boat to launch in the lake.
After the dives the conversation sounded something like “did you see that lionfish! He was huge! It was so cool!” I don’t think they really appreciated the fact that inside the belly of that invasive fish were probably a dozen native fish, colorful fish that the divers were hoping to see.
So it was a nice change in Christiansted, St. Croix, when I dove with Dive Experience, an operator who organizes lionfish hunts with prizes for the biggest kill, most kills, etc. Divers were carrying small spear guns, Hawaiian Slings, and knives strapped to every limb.
One guy looked like he was going to a fight rather than on a hunt for a football-sized fish. As soon as we descended, we swam along the bottom at a leisurely pace, spotting green sea turtles, southern stingrays, and your normal reef fish. And then a lionfish.
Whoever spotted it would bang on their tank with a metal clip to signal the other divers. Lionfish aren’t aggressive towards humans but they aren’t shy either. The hunter-diver would slowly move towards the spiked fish with spear gun aimed, pull the trigger, and the lionfish would jerk around trying to free itself after being hit.
The diver would then move in with a knife, gut the fish, and scrape it off of the spear. Caribbean reef sharks knew what we were up to and started circling around us, moving in to eat up the disabled fish. Thankfully these sharks didn’t really care much to taste neoprene.
We killed seven lionfish on the two dives that day. It’s not a lot, considering how fast they reproduce, but maybe it’s enough to keep them at bay long enough for another generation of humans to benefit from everything these reefs provide us.
Lionfish are merely one problem of many that the reefs face today, but it’s a problem that you can address and have fun doing at the same time.
So if you ever go diving in the Caribbean and have to choose between two dive operators, ask them what they do when they spot lionfish — do they take a picture for a souvenir or kill it on the spot?