The Lionfish Controversy

Lionfish is an invasive species in the Caribbean. They don’t have natural predators and eat everything that fits in their mouth. Even cleaner shrimp are found in their big fat bellys. Yes big fat bellys, because they eat a lot more than they would in their natural habitat and therefore grow fat. Why? Because they can. They don’t need to look for predatory fish, so they can eat all day long and they do. It is a big ecological threat to the environment. So in conclusion it sounds very reasonable to say mankind should hunt them down to bring back the balance into the oceans.


Or does it?


In Utila there have been big events held to keep the lionfish population in check. So far everyone with a spear and a PADI Rescue Diver certificate can go for the kill. On the 4th of July the whole island will celebrate the might mankind has above the lives of lionfish as all the dive centres will compete in the Utila Lionfish Derby 2015. There will be a prize for the biggest fish and for the best team of the tournament.


This is where I start to worry. I have been diving for 5 years now. I have seen divers pushing turtles, breaking corals, hunting lobsters and BBQing reef fish. In other words destroying the environment they paid so much money to see. Irresponsible diving is a great threat to coral reefs and so is lionfishing. It is not unlikely that people lose their buoyancy or hit the coral with the spear. And even if they don’t there is good chance that the lionfish won’t be killed immediately. Sometimes the cause of the death is not the spear itself but the lack of oxygen or freezing to death on the dive boats.


With lower numbers of lionfish some hunters might also start to go for other species to cover the demand. Parrotfish have been hunted, as their flesh tastes similar to that of lionfish. It is also arguable that some lionfish hunters will discover the thrill of hunting for the first time at the derby, and may start to hunt for other fish as well.


With dropping numbers and a tradition like a derby the hunt could get more intense and therefore more harmful than helpful for the reef. If you think you found the biggest one you might not care that it sits on coral. Depending on the coral it can take many years for them to recover from damage. Destroyed parts can also be the excess point for coral diseases, which are more and more common in the Caribbean reef.


Another problem regarding lionfish hunting is that the smaller and medium lionfish might be left alive if hunters are only pursuing the largest fish. As females don’t grow as big as males, we might be keeping alive the most fecund part of the population. Therefore the lionfish derby might be encouraging the wrong idea for the most efficient lionfish removal from Caribbean ecosystems.


I wish for higher responsibility in lion fishing, I wish for more respect for the environment and life itself. Death is nothing that should be celebrated and a dead body is nothing for a selfie! Lionfish are only present in the Caribbean due to the mistakes that humans made in the past, it is not their fault, handle them with respect. Be a responsible diver!


author: Julian Engel July 2015