Behold the lionfish, as captivating as it is destructive

The stillness under water is overwhelming. Time passes quickly. After discovering my target, I focus intensely on it, knowing that if I miss and the animal escapes, it might learn from the encounter and be harder to hunt in the future.

As I approach armed with my spear, I watch as the fish spreads its broad pectoral fins and displays its venomous spines. (Slow and easily spotted, it relies on this intimidating display to deter potential predators.) I take aim, withdraw my spear’s spring-loaded handle, and let the weapon fly.

I learned to free dive and hunt underwater as a kid, but spear fishing is no longer exciting to me. As an adult, I became interested in marine biology and underwater photography and eventually traded my childhood speargun for my first professional underwater camera. Shortly thereafter, I completed a Masters in Marine Biology. For the last 10 years I’ve been living on the small Caribbean island of Bonaire, where I work as a marine conservation photographer.

My overarching goal is to document the efforts of the local community – scientists, professional divers and volunteers – to conserve Bonaire’s reefs. And here a significant part of the collective conservation effort is focused on a specific target: the lionfish (Pterois miles and Pterois volitans).

Lionfish are native to the Pacific and Indian Oceans. But in recent decades, the animal has established itself in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, where its invasive presence poses a serious threat to tropical Atlantic reefs and associated habitats.

The effects are stunning. A study by Oregon State University scientists found that a single lionfish reduced the juvenile fish in its feeding zone by 80 percent in just five weeks. And their reproductive output is remarkably high: females can lay around 25,000 eggs every few days. In some locations, including the Bahamas, lionfish densities are causing perhaps the most significant change in reef habitat biodiversity since industrial fishing began.

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

Divers provide precise population management as underwater hunting causes little collateral damage. However, divers are limited by the depth to which they can comfortably descend — often around 60 feet. Traps can also be used in locations where lionfish occur at greater depths.

Because spearfishing is prohibited on Bonaire and to prevent injury, special tools have been developed and distributed to help divers in their hunt. The ELF tools – “ELF” stands for “extinguishing lionfish” – also help prevent damage that traditional spearguns and nets inflict on reefs.

While catching a lionfish is relatively easy, it can be difficult – and dangerous – to dislodge the fish from an ELF’s spearhead and tow the animal away without being injured by its venomous spines. Hence, lionfish hunters also began using a device called a “zookeeper” – essentially a piece of PVC pipe closed at one end and having a modified plastic funnel at the other end. Once the lionfish is impaled on the ELF, the fish (and spearhead) are inserted into the keeper; When the spear is pulled back, the funnel in the tube catches the fish.

When I first arrived on Bonaire I was introduced to the conservation project that aims to eradicate the lionfish. Because of my experience as a spear fisherman, I was immediately asked if I would like to join. I agreed to participate – although my real interest was in documenting the community’s efforts.

Ever since, I have been fascinated by the destructive abilities of this penetrating creature.

It feels cruel to kill something so hypnotically beautiful – although I understand rationally that the act is ecologically beneficial. The lionfish isn’t to blame, after all; Scientists suspect it likely ended up here when aquarium owners dumped unwanted specimens off the Florida coast, possibly because they ate their way through the other fish sharing their tanks.

And yet killing the fish, one at a time, is perhaps the best way to slow the devastation they are wreaking on Caribbean reefs.

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