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Lionfish sting, a painful lesson

Monday, August 25, 2014

Confusion reigns. My eyes see, but the brain makes no sense of it. A steady trickle of green-blackish liquid pulses from my left index finger. It floats up, like smoke from a chimney on a windless day, before dispersing in the water surrounding me. I watch in amazement. Moments before I had speared an invasive lionfish. Clumsily I remove it from my spear. The lionfish has its revenge. It stabs me with one of its 18 venomous spines.

One hundred feet deep, in the Caribbean Sea, everything I know about Lionfish races through my mind. Touching its toxin-loaded pointy spines can deliver an excruciatingly painful punch. Could this be toxin dripping from my fingertip? But nobody told me that lionfish toxin is green-black! After a few seconds reason clears my confused mind. It is physics. At 100 feet depth, most of the colour spectrum is filtered out and red is the first colour to go. The liquid is my red blood, stripped of nearly all colour. 

Pain radiates from my finger, down my arm. So far it feels like a wasp sting, but I know it can get worse…much worse. One lionfish hunter told me to imagine spreading a hand out on a table, and then hitting it full force with a hammer. That’s how bad it can get. I’m not sure what to expect. Half of me thinks: “Great! A new experience to write about!” The other half looks to the surface. Worried. There is a water column 17 fathoms tall above me. I signal to my buddy that I’m ascending. I hope the pain won’t hit until I’m safely at the surface. 

Up to that point I had followed all the rules. Well…all but one. I used the imaginatively named ELF Eliminate Lionfish spear tool. This is a short-range, low velocity spear designed to surgically picks off lionfish from the reefs, without doing harm to the corals among which they live.

In one flowing movement I impaled the lionfish, and immediately pushed it down on to a hard surface to make sure it was firmly attached to the spear. The ELF has barbs, just like a fishhook, so whatever it pierces can’t just slide off. Now came the tricky part, for which I wasn’t properly prepared. This is where I made my mistake. 

I have a device called a Zookeeper, which is a sturdy PVC pipe case with a funnel entry. It allows the user to carry speared lionfish without worrying about getting stuck by them. The funnel entry is designed so that one doesn’t have to handle caught lionfish to get them off the barbed spear. It is easy to use and effective, but completely useless if you leave it at home, like I did that day…

This is the one rule I broke: never hunt lionfish unless you have something safe to put them in. Instead of the Zookeeper, I used a thick plastic dry bag. Big mistake. Some very experienced lionfish hunters use these thick bags frequently, but they offer less protection than the Zookeeper.

When you see the Zookeeper, the first thing that goes through your mind is: “I’m supposed to dive with that?”. It always reminds me of a shoulder mounted anti-tank rocket launcher. But after a short dive, once you figure out how to secure it, you won’t realise it is there. The analogy with a battlefield weapon is not that far off. After all, this is a war fought by Caribbean lionfish hunters to protect reefs from this invasive super-predator, which is capable of destroying up to 90 per cent of our native juvenile reef fish. 

Getting stuck by a lionfish taught me a few things. Firstly: Don’t be stupid, follow the rules! Responsible lionfish hunters use low velocity spears and have a safety-first attitude when handling lionfish. This includes a proper containment device. Secondly: lionfish venom will not kill you.

To date, there are no recorded lionfish sting deaths. My lionfish sting never felt worse than that of a Jack Spaniard. I don’t know why I didn’t get the hit-by-a-bus-big-guy-fainting pain. Maybe it was a smallish lionfish. Maybe the water pressure at 100ft prevented the toxin from injecting too far in to my flesh—even though you can argue that the pressure should actually force the toxin in deeper. Maybe I have a very high pain tolerance level. I’ll only be able to compare when, or hopefully if, it happens again. 

Lionfish toxin is protein-based. Heat destroys protein, so the recommended response is that you immerse the affected area in water so hot that you can just tolerate it, for as long as you can. Some people think that urinating on the sting will help, but that’s just plain nasty, ineffective and it can possibly result in an infection. 

At the end of the day, I got the lionfish, but the lionfish got me too. Having the lionfish fight back made its meat taste that much sweeter. And that’s the third lesson (which I already knew): Lionfish tastes great. Eat ’em to beat ’em. It’s the one fish of which the more you eat, the better it is for the environment.


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