Divers Battle Lionfish for Control of Coral Reefs

Among globalization's many toxic fruits is the pandemic of invasive species, non-native plants and animals that are introduced to new habitats by humans and subsequently wreak destruction. Invasive species reportedly cost the United States up to $120 billion annually, and few of the U.S.'s foreign invaders are more problematic than the common lionfish.

A native of Southeast Asia, the lionfish was introduced to the Caribbean and Atlantic Coast in the early 1990's, likely by tropical fish dealers who dumped their merchandise into the sea. Lionfish have since come to dominate the region's reefs to the point that marine biologists concede the fish are ineradicable. The task now is to limit the destruction they inflict. Unlike most invasive species management efforts, which fall under the purview of government agencies, the burden of controlling lionfish has been shouldered by a private entity: scuba diving shops.

Dive shops are, in some ways, unlikely leaders in conservation. A shop's typical functions include selling equipment, training neophytes, and leading certified divers on tours of local coral reefs. They are strictly for-profit agencies that often cause environmental damage, and the atmosphere in a dive shop is more frivolous than socially responsible — for every diver with an encyclopedic knowledge of tropical fish, there are 10 more who only care about what those fish taste like.

But dive shops also recognize that their livelihood depends on virile reef ecosystems, and that lionfish threaten their business. The fish are voracious predators — in one study, scientists observed a single lionfish eat 20 native wrasse in 30 minutes — and, thanks to an armament of poisonous spines, nearly indestructible: in short, more than capable of demolishing the Caribbean's biodiversity. The fishing- and tourism-dependent economies of Florida and several Caribbean nations could be seriously harmed by a lionfish takeover.

In the face of federal inaction, dive shops have taken up the cause themselves. Shops from the Florida Keys to Honduras have begun hosting lionfish tournaments, in which rival teams of divers compete to kill as many of the miscreant fish as possible. At the end of some tournaments, the entire bounty is fried and eaten.

While diving in Honduras, I had the opportunity to harpoon a lionfish myself; and I impaled the gluttonous invader without hesitation or guilt. The trick when killing invasive species, I've found, is to focus less on the creature you're slaying than on the lives you're saving. "Kill 'em to save 'em" is a popular aphorism among invasive species controllers, and although it sounds flippant, it's an accurate summation of the goal. Invasive species must die so native species can thrive.

Lionfish tournaments are no panacea — absent governmental action, lionfish will continue their inexorable coup. But, as an avid diver, I take pleasure in seeing recreational divers grab the lead in this conservation issue, and perhaps their advocacy will attract federal focus and funding. The developing environmental conscience among divers bodes well not only for lionfish management, but for a host of other conservation issues: I envision a future in which scuba divers are the foot soldiers for marine research and conservation. Lionfish tournaments are merely a promising first phase.  

Photo Credit: Ben Goldfarb

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Ben Goldfarb

Ben Goldfarb is a recent graduate of the Yale School of Forestry, where he received a Masters of Environmental Management and served as editor of Sage Magazine. Ben's writing on environmental issues has appeared in publications such as The Guardian, OnEarth Magazine, and Green Futures Magazine.

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