Published October 2016
For Cayman Airways magazine – Skies www.caymanairwaysmagazine.com
Thanks to www.thefreerlancer.com for copyediting
Images by Jim Catlin http://www.jimcatlinphotography.com/
Divers in the waters of the western Atlantic are on a killing spree. Armed with spears and containment devices, they take to the water in order to cull as much as possible. Tournaments are held with cash prizes awarded for the biggest, smallest and heaviest haul. There is one specific species targeted, but no discrimination between age, size or gender. Environmentalists, scientists and even governments actively support the culling. But exactly what are they hunting and why?
The target is the lionfish and the reason they are being culled with such ferocity is due to the devastation they are inflicting on a beautiful habitat. Such is their appetite, that their stomach can stretch up to thirty times to accommodate prey over half their own size. A study in the Bahamas found them to cause an 80 percent reduction in native fish in just five weeks. They breed and spread at an astonishing rate and have been found to hold up to 60 dead fish and crustaceans in their gut at one time. Native species now struggle as they compete with this newcomer, and immense strain is being put on the food chain. Simply put, the lionfish are literally eating the reef population in to extinction.
The problem stems from the fact that these fish are not native to the east coast of America. Their arrival has caused chaos within this ecosystem. Lionfish are referred to as an “invasive species” due to the fact that, since their introduction in the mid 1980’s, their population has simply exploded. They have found a utopia in this new habitat as they feed gluttonously without the threat of any natural predators. Dr. James Morris from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has said that: “Lionfish may prove to be one of the greatest threats of this century to tropical Atlantic reefs.”
The exact story behind how they arrived in the Americas is unknown, but there has been much speculation. A popular theory was that an ocean front aquarium containing lionfish was damaged in 1992 during hurricane Andrew causing its contents to spill in to the sea. While this may well have happened, it cannot be the sole cause of the problem as the first reported sighting in Florida, USA, 1985 predates the hurricane. Scientists believe that the earliest recorded sightings were of fish that were released in to the ocean by private aquarium owners. It is also believed that the present situation results from multiple releases as opposed to one careless owner.
To call the lionfish invasive as a species is, I think, unfair. These fish made no conscious decision to uproot themselves from their native waters and venture in to new territories with grand plans of domination. The truth is that they are more a victim of their own extraordinary beauty. Lionfish have a unique, majestic appearance that, unfortunately for them, makes for a good commodity in the aquarium trade. It is this attraction that has resulted in them being plucked from their indigenous Indo-Pacific seas. Aquarium owners who bought lionfish have been known to struggle to keep up with the demands of their appetite. In these cases instead of killing them or rehoming them in another aquarium, they were dumped in the ocean.
Divers who have been lucky enough to encounter the lionfish in both their Asian and American habitats have noticed that there are differences between old and new. A common observation is that the new arrivals are much bigger in size than their cousins in their natural habitat. Their behaviour is also different; they are far less timid than their relatives, due to the absence of any kind of threat from other marine life, and they congregate in larger groups. Photographers notice that the more defensive lionfish in Asia will point their venom-filled dorsal spines at anyone who gets too close, a survival instinct that is far less common in their Atlantic relatives.
What is incredible about this translocation is the speed at which this species has conquered such a huge amount of territory. Since the first recording in Florida, lionfish have now been reported as far north as New York and as far south as Venezuela. They spread at such an alarming rate because the females are capable of releasing up to 30,000 eggs every 4 days. The egg sacks float in the water columns, where currents transport them to their new location. Previously uninvaded reef areas become affected when the current washes large numbers of eggs on to them starting a population boom.
They are a very versatile species, having the ability to live just below the surface or even at depths as great as 175 meters.
Attempts have been made to incorporate this voracious carnivore in to the existing food chain, but so far there has been little success. Hunters have tried spearing the fish and then feeding them to predators such as snappers, groupers, moray eels and sharks, who happily eat the dead or dying lionfish from a spear, but very rarely will actually attack or kill the lionfish. In Grand Cayman for example, feeding lionfish to other species has now been banned. Having tried this as a potential solution it was found that it only contributed towards the unbalance, as predators started to associate divers with food. Reports of moray eels swimming towards divers (often causing panic attacks) are one example of a negative impact on diver safety. Changes in the behaviour of fish such as groupers and snappers have been observed, for example in their closer proximity to divers who could be hunting illegally. These are just a couple of reasons why the Department of Environment concluded that feeding was not the answer.
As nature struggles to adjust to yet another blow from human intervention, there does not appear to be an overall solution in sight. Ideas along the lines of importing more species from Asia who already feed on lionfish have been written off as too risky. One lionfish culler jokingly suggested starting a rumour that lionfish are an aphrodisiac that stimulate weight loss.
In a desperate attempt to suppress the population growth, local communities are promoting the hunting and killing of both kinds of invasive lionfish – pterois volitans and pterois miles. Mass fishing techniques are not possible due to their inhabiting confined spaces like small tunnels or space under ledges. Currently, the most effective way to remove lionfish from the reef is for divers to spear them.
There is a misconception that lionfish are poisonous but in truth the white meat is perfectly edible. They are equipped with venomous spines which they have to defend themselves but once removed, the fish is very good to eat. As the lionfish venom is not heat stable, when subjected to high temperatures it is even possible to make dishes with the spines on creating quite a dramatic visual effect on the plate.
Lionfish culling has become a very popular activity throughout the tropical western Atlantic. Some kill the fish to eat, others to sell, some to try to offer relief to the struggling reefs, and then of course there are the gung-ho chest beaters who just want to kill something. Innovative entrepreneurs have established tradelines with companies specializing in catching, killing and exporting the fish to fine dining restaurants in the States. Lionfish now appear on menus throughout most of the Caribbean with specialities that range from lionfish ceviche to some very authentic tasting lionfish and chips. Many dive centres are actively assisting in the culling activities by providing spearfishing training and education. Cullers are made aware of how to hunt safely and responsibly in order to avoid injury to themselves or their surroundings. While on Caribbean holidays, divers can be trained in the use of spear guns, Hawaiian slings or even nets to catch the fish and then how to safely remove the spines before handing them over to the kitchen.
Culling lionfish is a risky business, being stung or “spiked” by a lionfish spine is not something to be brushed off. The venom causes intense pain and swelling and can cause necrosis of the flesh or even send the recipient in to anaphylactic shock. Most injuries are sustained to the divers hands and often occur when trying to put a lionfish in to a containment device underwater or when handling the dead fish back on land.
No -one knows yet how this story will unfold. It is speculated that we have not yet seen the worst of the invasion, and it is believed that their population will continue to rise. As the footprint of the lionfish upon the reef gets deeper, so the struggle becomes harder for native marine life. It is hoped that controlling species will develop a taste for lionfish but until such time the dive community accepts the responsibility to do what it can to keep numbers as low as possible. For now, the advice is to eat our way through this and given the taste of some of the fine dishes being cooked up, I for one am more than happy to do my bit.
Diving has taken me to some incredible places and enabled me to do things that would have once been unimaginable. There are a few experiences which will always stand out, some good, some bad and certainly some ugly. Recently I had the very distinct pleasure of not only meeting Buzz Aldrin, his son and his personal assistant but guiding them all on a DPV (underwater scooter) dive in the tropical waters of Grand Cayman.
When I started working for Divetech in 2013, I recall staring with amazement at the signed photos of the moon landing that were behind the counter. Boyish excitement rose within me as I recalled my childhood fascination with space. So when I was informed by my operations manager that I would be guiding Buzz Aldrin on a DPV dive I will not pretend that I was anything less than awestruck.
I knew that Buzz participates in fundraising activities for the Astronaut Scholarship Fund (ASF) and that in the past he had been diving with us in order to raise money for that cause. My initial assumption that this visit was along the same lines turned out to be wrong, this time round Buzz was on vacation.
It goes without saying that life for an astronaut will be different to most other peoples, vacations, it turns out, are no exception. I was soon to learn that this would not be a relaxed affair where we had all afternoon to casually stroll in to the ocean like one of our normal gigs. The dive was sandwiched in to a schedule involving activities like school visits and presentations, even on vacation it seems that the work never stops. This trip to Grand Cayman was certainly no vacation for his personal assistant. In the brief glimpse of their lives I had, I could see that she never switches off and the ability she demonstrates in keeping the tight schedule on track is an art form unto itself.
When the day came, I made my introductions and tried to play down my excitement, after all, I was there to do a job. Underwater my focus would primarily have to be on safety as it is with any dive regardless of whether the people with me have been to space or not. Immediately I sensed that time was not to be wasted. The group as a whole were more than polite and pleasant but also keen to keep things moving in order to honor their next commitments. Knowing they were all experienced divers, I kept my briefing to a minimum, just covering what was required to make sure everyone was on the same page.
At first, it took the group a little while to get to grips with the scooters. All but one were tentative in their initial approach, trying the controls to see what did what. Buzz was the one who was not so interested in starting slow, he clearly wanted the thing to go as fast as possible as soon as possible. Before long, we were on our way, shooting through the water like a bunch of crazed maniacs. I love DPV dives. As soon as we got moving, this one proved to be as much fun as any I’ve been on before. Everybody held on tight with the scooters between their legs, occasionally swerving to avoid coral heads and other underwater obstacles.
As I looked around the group to make sure everyone (including the man who once walked on the moon) was OK and keeping up, my mask shuddered and my reg pulled at my mouth under the velocity. We flew through the water just a couple of feet from the sandy floor, the mini wall to our left hurtled by way too fast to pick out any detail.
Periodically, I checked in with each of the group to ensure that everything was good by giving the “OK?” signal. Although everyone responded, in truth this was one of those times when you don’t really need to see the confirmation as you can tell from their faces that OK is an understatement. Everyone was having an amazing time, me included.
As all good things must come to an end, constrained by air, decompression limits and battery power we had to start thinking about ending the dive. Following a decrease in speed while we did our safety stop we cruised on in to the exit point. Breaking the surface it was smiles all round. In the excitement of the dive, I had forgotten to be star struck, it was just so much fun that everything other than the thrill of the moment ceased to exist.
Back on dry land, opportunity to talk about the dive was minimal. Buzz said his good bye by giving me a “Get Your Ass to Mars” T shirt and mentioned that he hopes I see someone land on Mars in my lifetime as (in his words) he probably won’t get to see it in his.
Then they were gone, what a whirlwind of a morning! I slowly set about washing and packing up the gear, taking the opportunity to rest a little. I still was not fully able to digest what had just happened. As I made my way back home, I started thinking about the Mars project and wondered what it would be like to be the first person to go there. What would go through your mind to truly pioneer something like that?
It is my sense of adventure that attracted me to diving. This same attraction has kept me traveling the world in search of new and interesting underwater escapades. To meet a living legend who has had an adventure, the likes of which I can only dream of, was nothing short of inspirational. This encounter gave me an interesting perspective on what is achievable in life. From here on in, whenever I set my sights on something, I will never again worry about punching too high. As Buzz can tell you, not even the sky is the limit.