Roatan’s Beauty, Truth & Wisdom

A diver cuts off the lionfish’s 18 venomous spines. (photo by Lori Kunzelman)

Invasion of the Lionfish has Damaged the Roatan Ecosystem

The waters of Roatan are being invaded and a silent battle is being waged across the coral reef. Every single night indigenous marine life struggles to survive against a never-ending onslaught from foreign invaders. Native to the warm waters of Asia and the Pacific where they prey on some species while being preyed upon by others, lionfish here in the Caribbean have no natural predators. Nothing eats them and nothing breaks up the groups of eggs they lay on the surface, so lionfish have been proliferating, killing everything on the reef while prolifically breeding at unprecedented rates.

“The lionfish has a voracious appetite, eating everything in the Caribbean except the conch. We found lobsters, shrimp, crab, fish and octopus within their stomachs,” said Nic Bach who runs the Lionfish Invasive Species Containment Program at the Roatan Marine Park (RMP). The diverse life on the island’s reef isn’t equipped to fight back and lionfish have been known to target shrimp cleaning stations, leaving a few small fish to keep the algae growth in check and subjecting entire sections of vibrant coral vulnerable to other stresses. Bach calls it the “largest, widespread invasion since man.”

“Lionfish are aliens here and predators such as a groupers and snappers that would eat them [in areas where they are native] do not identify them as prey,” said Chris Willey, a PADI Master SCUBA Diver Trainer who helps educate divers to responsibly aid in lionfish containment through spearfishing.

Lionfish most likely entered the Atlantic through a release of aquarium individuals beginning in the mid-80s in Florida. Although there is also a theory that the fish may have traveled in the bilge pumps of large tankers making their way from Asia through the Panama Canal to ports in South Florida. They spread through the warm coastal waters at a geometric rate, reaching Roatan in 2009. By 2012 they made it all the way to the eastern edge of the Caribbean. Now they can be found all the way down the coast of Brazil, covering almost the entire Atlantic coast of South America. Lionfish have succeeded here on Roatan like they have everywhere else.

Lionfish have been proliferating, killing everything on the reef

Answering the challenge posed by these invasive predators, the Roatan Marine Park first partnered up with the National Fisheries Department in 2009 to issue spearing licenses to professional diver instructors and dive masters. Today, these licenses can be obtained by anyone after completing a training course through the RMP so even the general public is on the lionfish snorkel patrol.

Thus far in 2018 the Roatan Marine Park has issued more than 200 lionfish permits, a number Bach sees increasing to something like 350 for the whole year, which would be on par with last year’s total and slightly lower than the high of 400 in 2014.

Willey, creator of the PADI Lionfish Hunter distinctive specialty program, which builds on the Roatan Marine Park invasive species containment course, stresses that divers need to ensure that they do not feed lionfish to other marine life. “If we are acting as predators we must act like predators and must remove lionfish for consumption,” Willey said. Otherwise the divers affect fish behavior, teaching groupers, eels and other large predators that “divers give out free food,” which isn’t a smart, safe or sustainable practice.

Roatan recreational divers spear a lionfish. (photo by Lori Kunzelman)

Another key component to successful lionfish containment on Roatan is in doing no harm to the reef. Often it is those trying to do the best for the reef, photographers looking to document new behaviors, spear fishers desperate to bag the biggest catch, and other distracted divers who end up doing the most damage, often exceeding whatever good they hoped to accomplish.“By you hitting a piece of reef that took two years to just grow one inch is doing a lot more damage than that lionfish will ever do,” Bach said.

Some have come up with more creative ways of fighting lionfish. “I was thinking about building some little castles and palaces around the reef, see if we could attract lionfish. You can spear that all you want, you aint gonna hurt anything,” said Jack Mitchell, the longtime chef who has been a passionate advocate for consuming lionfish since being asked to serve them for a marine biologist’s wedding back in 2012.

Tournaments like the first ever Roatan International Lionfish Tournament being held from October 12-14, organized by Buck Beasley, hope to expand recognition of the problems that lionfish present to the vital heart of the tourism industry on Roatan. Beasley decided to put on the tournament “to help locals gain awareness. The goal is to put the lionfish front and center for the local population.” With a top prize of $1,000 for the most lionfish caught from a 4-person team using spear-poles, the derby style tournament hopes to attract attention from crews throughout the Bay Islands and the Caribbean. The tournament also hopes to raise enough funds to help some local free divers get certified and outfitted as professional divers. “We hope to raise funds that will allow us to train and certify local watermen on SCUBA. We want to give these guys opportunities for better livelihoods,” said Beasley, who is licensed by Roatan Marine Park to issue lionfish hunting certifications and has lost count of the number he has issued over the years.

“If you are what you eat, then I’m a lionfish,” said Mitchell, who runs Lionfish Louie’s, which will be hosting a big lionfish cookout the day after the tournament when cash prizes will be awarded in several categories.

Zoe Kunzelman, an eleven-year old girl from Utah, who was recently certified by Beasley and issued a spear-pole, knows she’s doing something good for the reef when she hunts for lionfish. She proudly cuts off the spines and fillets the lionfish before she gets to the surface, but her favorite part of hunting lionfish is when she brings her catch back to the kitchen where they prepare the yummy tasting flaky white fish anyway she likes. Her favorites ways are grilled with barbeque, then mango butter.

There is no limit to how many lionfish a diver can skewer. Even if every last one would end up on a Roatan plate more will drift in on the currents from farther east. “We are never going to eradicate them. We’re simply educating people and creating a demand for the lionfish,” said Bach. Willey notes that spearing a lionfish is one of the most rewarding, exhilarating, adrenaline-producing moments of diving because when “we remove lionfish we are helping the ecosystem and saving a lot of juvenile native fish.”

Two lionfish display their colorful spines. (photo by Robert Herb)

If programs like the one being run by the Roatan Marine Park are ultimately going to be successful, it’s through systematic cooperation between disparate groups among the many nations in the Caribbean. It’s only by working together, pooling resources, data, and best practices that anything resembling fundamental change will ever be fully realized.

“Below recreational [SCUBA diving depth] limits the reef is still filthy with lionfish,” Beasley said, speaking of his concern for what lionfish are doing at depth. He notes that they have been seen by subs at depths of one-thousand feet. “What are they eating at depth that will affect future fisheries? Are they eating the juvenile snapper, grouper, or even the tuna stocks?” Beasley asks before concluding that we cannot imagine the ecological disasters that await from the actions of the lionfish at depth.

There have been some ingenious and exciting trap systems, like the one designed by Dr. Steve Gittings, Chief Scientist of NOAA’s Marine Sanctuary System, made to use technology and behavior to target lionfish in deep water specifically while minimizing by-catch,. Having the commercial fleet on Roatan utilizing these kind of deep water traps “would be a natural fit between lobster seasons and keep those boats and fishermen busy year round,” said Beasley, who hopes to have one of Gittings’ traps on display at the Roatan International Lionfish Tournament in October to help educate locals on how the traps function.

“I dream of the day a local can spend a day hunting lionfish for a return of $6-$10 per pound,” Beasley said. He sees the tipping point coming “when the nutritional value is realized and we can provide a steady supply to market.”