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Wanted: Lionfish – Dead or Alive

The venomous lionfish is wreaking ecological havoc off the shores of Belize. A nonprofit conservation group is endeavoring to kill off the invasive species by arming tourists with spears.

Author Jeannie Ralston Photography Robb Kendrick

lionfish

The divers, eight in total, carry spears and swim urgently toward the reef 45 feet below the surface of the sea. They’ve seen the enemy and mean to destroy them.

Clustered around a large barrel coral are nine brightly colored fish; feathery fins arc over their tiger-striped bodies like peacock tails in full strutting display. But their beauty is deceiving. Not only are these lionfish wickedly venomous, their species has been called one of the biggest ecological disasters ever to hit the Western Atlantic. Here, off the coast of Belize, this invasive fish has been wreaking havoc on the southern edge of the Mesoamerican Reef (which stretches more than 600 miles north to the Yucatán Peninsula), disrupting a very delicate ecosystem.

One diver, in a black-and-fluorescent-green wetsuit, takes a spear and moves in closer to do what he’s been trained for. Holding the spear steady, he aims its three sharp prongs at one of the fish, which is bobbing slightly in the underwater surges. After a burst of bubbles from his regulator, the diver releases the spear. As the prongs pierce the flesh, the fish twitches, then goes still, before it is slipped into a clear plastic bag to be dissected later.

The marksman is not a pro spear fisherman, not a marine biologist, not a scientist of any kind. He is actually a grocery store manager from Dover, England, named Renato Amitrano, and he’s on vacation with Reef Conservation International (RCI), the nonprofit that has been enlisting the help of tourists to stem the tide of damage caused here by the lionfish. “I was a bit worried at first about getting too close and getting stung by those poisonous spines,” Amitrano says later. “But once it was done, I was excited. I was helping to save the reef.”

Polly Alford, the founder and director of RCI, is counting on that sense of accomplishment and do-goodery expressed by Amitrano, whom she likes to refer to as one of her “citizen scientists.” The idea is simple, says Alford, who quit her job as a technology executive in the U.K. to launch RCI on an acre-and-a-half islet 36 miles from Punta Gorda, Belize’s southernmost city, in 2004. “I thought, ‘It would be great if there was a place people could come for any length of time for a fabulous holiday and to help protect the reef at the same time.’”

At first, visitors collected data about reef health and conducted surveys of fish species, such as lobster, conch and parrotfish, between delicious meals and leisurely naps on one of the hammocks at RCI’s tropical paradise of a base. However, when the first lionfish was spotted in the southern Belizean waters in 2009, Alford broadened RCI’s focus. “They’re the cockroaches of the ocean,” she says, noting that one lionfish, which can weigh more than two pounds, can release up to 50,000 eggs every four days. In some areas of the Caribbean, as many as 1,200 lionfish have been counted per acre. Isabelle Côté, who specializes in lionfish as a professor of marine biology at Simon Fraser University in Canada, found that over two years, native fish species in one part of the Bahamas declined by an average of 65 percent after the arrival of the invaders. As they are native to the Indo-Pacific region, lionfish have no predators in this part of the world—except those that swim around in black neoprene wielding spears.

“Go for the head,” Jason Guy says, pointing to one end of a coconut, a stand-in for a lionfish during a pre-dive training session for those vacationing with RCI. Guy, a Belizean marine biologist who worked as an administrator for the Belize Fisheries Department before joining Alford’s team, demonstrates how to put the elastic loop of the yellow lionfish spear around your hand and then stretches the loop toward the base of the spear, near the prongs. “You want to get about six inches away and then let go of the spear.” He opens his fingers and the spear, propelled by the retraction of the elastic loop, stabs the coconut.

Now it’s time for the novices to try. A group of 10 stands in a circle around the coconut, in the middle of RCI’s islet base. Surrounding the guests are hammocks strung between palm trees, seven small stone cabanas, and a main house with five guest rooms, a kitchen, dining hall and lounge. And lots of water. Besides one even smaller islet, there is nothing on the horizon but sparkling turquoise sea.

After a realtor from New York and a math teacher from Ohio gore the coconut, Joseph Barbknecht, a Dallas-area attorney, has a go at it. His first attempt goes over the target; the second falls short. “Getting eye and hand to match up,” he says as he lines up another attempt. “There’s a bit of parallax going on.” Barbknecht’s next shot pierces the target, bringing a grin to his face. “Well, I sure frightened that coconut,” he says.  

Before heading out on the boat for the short ride to the dive site, Guy tells the group the No. 1 rule of lionfish hunting: Once they’ve speared one, they are to keep the spear down, planted against the ocean floor, until he or Alford can take the spear and put the fish into the collection bag. This is for safety. Lionfish have 18 venomous spines and require special handling. “A lionfish sting won’t kill you, but if you get stung, you’ll wish you were dead,” says Guy, who has been on the wrong end of a spine seven times. With no anti-venom, the pain and swelling must simply be endured—sometimes for several days, depending on how deep the spine goes in.

After one dive, as he empties a thick plastic bag of 34 lionfish onto a wood table near the dock, Guy carefully slides back the orange-and-black scales to show his charges a menacing, needle-like spine.

“Scary,” says Jeb Kendrick, a teenager from Austin, as he flinches and backs away from the table. Danielle Fraser, an educational-travel agent, hides behind Amitrano, her boyfriend, as if the fish were going to jump off the table.

“They can still sting even when they’re dead, so I have to be very careful,” Guy says. Handing a clipboard to Kendrick, he asks the young Texan to take notes that he will later hand over to the Belize Fisheries Department. Guy measures each fish, determines its sex and whether it’s pregnant, and then slices open the stomach to see what the fish has eaten. Data such as this is crucial to determining which native species are vulnerable to lionfish and where large populations of lionfish are reproducing.

“That’s a lot of goo in there,” Kendrick notes, his face scrunched up in disgust as he looks at the inside of the first stomach being carved up by Guy. “Do I just write down ‘goo?’”

Guy points to two globs the size of paper clips; amazingly, distinguishing features are discernible. “This is a tiny lobster, and here’s a parrotfish,” he says. Lobster is one of Belize’s most important commercial catches; lionfish also eat grouper and snapper, other key species.

“Lionfish eat anything they can get in their mouths,” Guy says. “They’re pigs.”

Parrotfish, however, is the chief concern. “They graze on algae on the reef, and that gives corals a chance to outcompete the algae, which grows more quickly,” says Linda Searle, co-founder of Ecomar, an environmental research group that works in Belize. Without parrotfish, she explains, the reefs could lose out to the algae. Parrotfish are so crucial to reef health that in 2009 Belize completely banned killing or capturing them.

“A couple of weeks ago, we found 19 juvenile parrotfish in one lionfish,” says Alford. “That makes me sad, but I was also happy that this particular lionfish could do no more damage.

“At some dive sites, it seems our efforts are really working, and the numbers are down,” continues Alford, who claims that RCI harvests roughly 200 lionfish a week. “At other places, it feels like a losing battle, but we must continue to fight. The bottom line is, if left unchecked, lionfish will ultimately cause the destruction of the reefs, native fish stocks and the livelihood of everyone who depends on fishing.”

If there’s a fortunate aspect to the lionfish invasion, it’s that we may be able to eat our way out of the problem. Take the scene at Asha’s Culture Kitchen, in Punta Gorda. The menu here is a huge blackboard with the dishes listed in colorful chalk, with a check mark next to each item that is available on a particular night. On a Sunday evening, Asha (aka Ashton Allan Martin) leaves his post behind the counter and, with his finger, erases the check mark next to the word “lionfish,” written in light blue cursive. “Lionfish are one of our best-sellers,” explains Asha, whose long braids are gathered in a thick bundle at the nape of his neck. “We’re all out.”

As it happens, lionfish taste good, with a light white meat comparable to grouper or snapper. RCI takes full advantage of this. Once a week, a sailboat charter out of the tourist center of Placencia brings a group of vacationers to RCI’s islet base for dinner. Alford uses this opportunity to spread her message, serving lionfish fingers and lionfish ceviche and urging her guests to request lionfish at restaurants when they get back to Placencia. “Now the demand from restaurants is more than we can provide,” says Alford.

Part of Alford’s conservation plan is to create a commercial market for lionfish. What is not cooked up as meals for her guests is sold to restaurants for a relatively high price of $9 to $10 a pound. “It’s good if they’re expensive,” she says, as the premium encourages fishermen to do the labor-intensive harvesting work. (Belizean law prohibits the taking of lionfish by means other than freediving or scuba diving.)

Asha, who as a divemaster often harvests his own lionfish, says he sells 40 to 50 pounds of the fish a week. “When I see lionfish out on the reef where lobster are supposed to be, I think, ‘I’m bigger than you. I’m going to take you,’” he says. “I’ve been stung twice, and that gives me more reason to kill more and eat more.” Asha is so serious about ridding his home waters of this threat that he has posted handmade signs all over Punta Gorda that read, “Wanted: Lionfish. Dead or Alive.”

RCI is also helping to create another market for lionfish. After every dive, Guy cuts the best-looking fins—which aren’t poisonous—off the fish he fillets. The fins are either whitish or orange with black splatter patterns. Guy dries them in the sun, and then they are given to local women to make jewelry out of. “We’ve conducted workshops for them; we want to empower these women,” says Alford, noting that RCI buys many of the resulting earrings to resell to guests, as well as online.

“Our motto is: ‘Kill them. Eat them. Wear them,’” declares Guy, who notes that his 6-year-old daughter has fully embraced this idea. “She only wants to eat lionfish, so right now we’re telling her that every fish we serve at home is lionfish just so she’ll eat it. She always asks me when she can come out diving and spear lionfish too. She wants them all gone.”

So does Renato Amitrano. “It makes me sad that they’re taking over,” he says at the end of his week with RCI, as he takes a last look at the islet from the boat that is carrying him back to the mainland. “But it feels great to have done something about it. I mean, this could have been just a regular beach holiday. The warm sea and the white sand really do tempt you into lying back with a cocktail, soaking up the sun. But working to protect the reef adds so much more depth to the trip.”

Austin-based journalist Jeannie Ralston snagged a lionfish on her very first attempt.

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