Belize Fights Back Against an Uninvited Guest

By Jo Hudson of Blue Ventures

On Tuesday July 2 at 11am, a very special box left Belize on its way to the U.S. Its contents? Eleven and a half pounds of filleted lionfish (Pterois volitans), a species that poses one of the greatest threats to the sustainability of coral reefs and fisheries throughout the Caribbean.

Lionfish, an insatiable predator native to the Indian and Pacific oceans, was accidentally introduced to the western Atlantic near Florida in the 1980s. This voracious fish has been devouring its way through much of the region’s marine biodiversity ever since, wreaking ecological havoc across Caribbean reefs from Panama to Puerto Rico.

With each lionfish capable of gulping down fish half its size, the unsuspecting Caribbean prey have never encountered a fish that hunts quite like it, and stand little chance in the face of their new predator’s impressive bulk and menacing venomous spines.  The diverse Caribbean menu on offer has enabled the lionfish to develop a varied palate in its adopted home, gorging itself on invertebrates and reef fish alike.

speared lionfish picture

Lionfish can be speared or captured using traditional lobster hooks. Without a Fisheries ‘Lionfish License’, it is illegal to spearfish within protected areas or on SCUBA. Photograph courtesy of Gordon Kirkwood

Alongside its all-you-can-eat banquet, an absence of known predators in the Atlantic creates ideal breeding conditions for lionfish, with the animals reproducing at faster rates than in their native Indo-Pacific waters. This, coupled with the remarkable fecundity of female lionfish—producing up to two million eggs each year—means populations are exploding unchecked.

Five years after its first sighting in Belizean waters in 2008, lionfish are now decimating marine life along the length of the world heritage-listed Belize barrier reef.  Beyond upsetting the ecology of this global biodiversity hotspot, the lionfish invasion now stands to undermine two of Belize’s most important industries: fishing and tourism.

Earning this small Caribbean nation around US $250 million each year, tourism accounts for almost one fifth of GDP, with many of the country’s 800,000 annual visitors drawn by an underwater wonderland that is now imperiled by the lionfish.  And with Belize’s fishing sector worth a further US $27 million and employing 1% of the population, the loss of commercially important marine species to this unwelcome visitor threatens the traditional fishing livelihoods that are the lifeblood of the country’s coastal communities.

The Best Defense Is a Good Offense

But hope for Caribbean reefs is not yet lost.  While the lionfish is now so well established that complete eradication is impractical, large-scale removal of lionfish could help to slow or even halt its rapid population growth.

But how to go about this seemingly impossible task? In Belizean waters efforts are now underway to confront the lion in its lair.  The lionfish has a taste not unlike perennial favorites grouper and cod, with a delicate flavor and flaky texture.  Yet fishermen have yet to catch up with this exciting new market opportunity, often remaining wary of targeting a fish armed with rows of syringe-sharp toxic spines.

Across Belize, conservationists are now working with communities to teach fishermen lionfish handling and processing techniques, in doing so cultivating new domestic and international markets for this surprisingly delicious fish.

Bin of lionfish after being caught picture

The first batch of lionfish processed in the Placencia Cooperative’s facility. Photograph courtesy of Lee Mcloughlin

“The common belief among the fishers in Belize was that the sting of a lionfish was fatal” says Jen Chapman, Conservation Coordinator for Blue Ventures Belize.” But when we started running handling demonstrations and the fishers saw me handling the lionfish without fear it became a matter of pride.”

Read more at: http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com

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