Behold the lionfish, as piercing as it is destructive

Behold the lionfish, as piercing as it is destructive

The silence underwater is overwhelming. Time flies. Having spotted my target, I focus on it intensely, knowing that if I miss and the animal escapes, it might learn from the encounter and be more difficult to hunt in the future.

As I approach, armed with my spear, I watch the fish spread its wide pectoral fins, spreading its venomous spines. (Slow and easy to spot, he relies on this intimidating display to deter would-be predators.) I aim, pull the spring-loaded handle of my spear, and let the weapon fly.

I learned to snorkel and hunt underwater when I was a kid, but spearfishing is no longer my passion. As an adult, I became interested in marine biology and underwater photography, before trading in my childhood speargun for my first professional underwater camera. Shortly after, I completed a master’s degree in marine biology. For the past 10 years I have lived on the small Caribbean island of Bonaire, where I work as a marine conservation photographer.

My main goal is to document the efforts of the local community – scientists, professional divers and volunteers – to preserve the reefs of Bonaire. And here, an important part of the collective preservation effort is focused on a particular target: the lionfish (Pterois miles and Pterois volitans).

The lionfish is native to the Pacific and Indian oceans. But in recent decades, the animal has become established in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea, where its invasive presence poses a serious threat to tropical Atlantic reefs and their associated habitats.

The effects are staggering. A study by scientists at Oregon State University found that in just five weeks, a single lionfish reduced the number of juvenile fish in its feeding area by 80%. And their reproductive capacity is remarkably high: females can lay about 25,000 eggs every few days. In some places, including the Bahamas, lionfish density may well be driving the biggest change in the biodiversity of reef habitats since the dawn of industrialized fishing.

Communities across the Caribbean have used a number of strategies to stem the growth of lionfish populations. Bonaire relies on volunteer lionfish hunters; on partnerships with Stichting Nationale Parken Bonaire, or STINAPA, a non-profit foundation that manages Bonaire’s nature parks; and on the help of local dive shops.

Divers offer a precise form of population management, since spearfishing causes little collateral damage. But divers are limited by how deep they can comfortably descend – often around 60 feet. In places where lionfish are found at greater depths, traps can also be used.

Because spearfishing is prohibited on Bonaire and to help prevent injuries, special tools have been developed and distributed to aid divers in their hunts. ELF tools – “ELF” stands for “eradicate lionfish” – also help prevent the damage that traditional harpoon guns and nets inflict on reefs.

While it’s relatively easy to catch a lionfish, it can be difficult – and dangerous – to remove the fish from an ELF’s spearhead and tow the animal away without being harmed by its venomous spines. So lionfish hunters also started using a device called a “zoo keeper” – basically a piece of PVC pipe closed at one end and with a modified plastic funnel at the other end. Once the lionfish is speared onto the ELF, the fish (and the tip of the spear) are inserted into the zookeeper; when the spear is withdrawn, the fish is trapped inside the pipe by the funnel.

When I arrived in Bonaire, I was introduced to the conservation project to eradicate lionfish. Due to my experience as a spearfisherman, I was immediately asked to get involved. I agreed to participate — even though my real interest was to document community efforts.

Since then, I’ve become fascinated with the transfixing creature’s destructive abilities.

It’s cruel to kill something so hypnotically beautiful – even though I understand, rationally, that the act is good for the environment. The lionfish, after all, is not to blame; scientists say it probably ended here, when aquarium owners dumped unwanted specimens off the coast of Florida, possibly because they were shoving their way through other fish sharing their aquariums .

Yet killing the fish, one by one, may be the best way to slow the havoc they are wreaking on Caribbean reefs.

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