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Get ready for Tobago’s first lionfish derby

Published: 
Monday, September 1, 2014

Lionfish hunters, get ready. The first Tobago Lionfish hunting tournament is nearly here. The Institute of Marine Affairs’ (IMA) Lionfish Derby is on September 27 and 28, 2014. It is open to scuba divers, snorkelers and free divers.  The Indo-Pacific Lionfish is an invasive species that was first observed in Tobago waters two years ago. It is a perfectly evolved superpredator. Its 18 venomous spines make it invulnerable to attackers. It will eat just about anything it can fit in to its mouth: juvenile fish, baby lobsters, shrimp.

Jahson Alemu I, reef ecologist with the IMA, and main organiser of the lionfish derby, told me that lionfish have been found to tolerate low salinity water. This allows them to “colonise estuarine and mangrove areas which are known to be havens for juvenile fish and shellfish,” and they “spawn two million eggs per year.” How is that for a top-of-the-pile-survivalist species? They are beautiful fish. Their reddish-brown erect spines remind people of a lion’s mane. Hence the name. Much loved as aquarium fish, people can become upset at the idea of killing these animals. So is letting them find their own equilibrium an option? As a conservationist and a vegetarian, I had to test the ethics of lionfish hunting against my own beliefs. I became a vegetarian because I did not want to contribute to depletion of fish stocks, and cutting out meat was the single biggest thing I could do to reduce my environmental footprint. So what are lionfish facts that the conservationist and ethical eater should know? 

Alemu I explains: “In its newly-invaded territory there is no natural balance or control for the lionfish. While a lot of research is being done on finding potential predators or diseases or parasites that might act as a natural control, a viable option has not yet been found. A single lionfish can remove between 10,000-15,000 prey fish per year.” I asked Elizabeth Underwood, the lionfish programme co-ordinator for REEF Environmental Education, what will happen if we do nothing. “If lionfish aren’t culled, they will most likely continue to deplete our native prey fish populations. Studies have shown that on reefs where lionfish are not culled, native prey fish populations can be reduced by 69 per cent on average. However, on reefs where lionfish are regularly removed, native prey fish populations can increase by 70 per cent!”

Well, that’s convincing enough for me. In the absence of natural predators, humans must cull them. As a vegetarian, I’ll make an exception for lionfish. Does this make me a pescatarian. I still will not eat other fish, so maybe I need a new word: How about a liontarian? It is all semantics. The important thing is that we think about what we eat, and lionfish is definitely on the ethical menu. 
Culling can happen in two ways. It can either be done by organising lionfish derbies, which attract enthusiasts, or by creating a commercial market for lionfish so that career fishermen will consistently remove lionfish from the reefs and supply them to restaurants and markets. 

Creating a market for lionfish is the most desirable model for dealing with the lionfish invasion, but Underwood cautions that may not be feasible right now: “As far as I know, most fishermen find it more profitable to fish other fish than lionfish. The effort required for catching lionfish can be high, especially for the price the fishermen could get for it. So I think in terms of making a living off of lionfish solely right now, the fishermen aren’t interested in it. Maybe if buyers were willing to pay more for it, things might change. But I’m really not sure. Unfortunately right now, there’s no way to commercially harvest lionfish (via traps etc), so you have to remove each fish individually.” 

So it looks like the market is not ready to incentivise a self-sustained lionfish hunt and derbies play an essential role. According to Alemu I: “Derbies are excellent for significantly reducing lionfish numbers, especially in areas which might not be monitored regularly or in areas where very high lionfish populations may be noted. Additionally, the high consumer demand for this exotic restaurant fish is also driving some control strategies especially in the upper Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, both for domestic consumption and for an export market.” Alemu I stresses that participants are encouraged to use low velocity pole spears or ELFs (Eliminate Lionfish tools). “We do not want there to be any undue damage to the reef because of this event, so we will supply a limited number of pole spears to participants, but they will have to be returned at the end.” Those folks who insist on using regular spearguns are “strongly encourage to be sensitive to the reef and those around them.”