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About 10 years ago I was leading a somewhat hairy diving expedition to Palau. We had $100,000 worth of camera gear, 16 rebreathers and 2,000 pounds of white, granular sodalime packed in 50 plastic containers. Apparently, sodalime,which is used as a CO2 “scrubber” in rebreathers, looks a lot like crack cocaine to Micronesian customs officials. After several hours in a pale white interrogation room and after producing magazine assignment letters and official documents from Palau’s Minister of Tourism, we were finally released under the watchful yet suspicious eye of the island authorities. Ironically, as we walked into the streets, we had to dodge large splats of blood-red betel nut juice all over the pavement. If you’ve never traveled to the magical land of Betel Nut, you may not know that it’s a legal narcotic chewed by a large portion of the population. It also turns your teeth, mouth, and lips blood-red, creating a vampire smile Anne Rice would be proud of. Although I’ve never chewed the stuff, it’s reported to deliver quite a bounce in one’s step.
With a bit of luck and a rather large “deposit” at customs we brought the rebreathers into the country and loaded them on our Mother Ship, the Palau Aggressor. The beauty of rebreather diving, besides not belching a humongous trail of bubbles, is that the gas supply remains constant regardless of depth. The systems we were using yielded 90-minutes underwater whether we were at 30 feet or 100 feet. I was planning on using the extensive bottom time to shoot an obscene number of images of the majestic lionfish. Endemic to the Indo-Pacific, the lionfish is a photo prize. They’re not elusive but they’re not the easiest to capture on film either, especially with proper exposure and compelling composition. I was determined to use the rebreather advantage and take home a bag full of awesome lionfish shots. A half mile east of the famous Blue Corner, where muscular sharks glide effortlessly in four-knot currents, I found a cave at 90 feet with four pimped out lionfish. I spent an entire hour there, going well into decompression, but I got shots from every angle. I ascended to 20 feet, rode out my deco and still had gas in the tank to spare. Success was mine.
These days, of course, you don’t have to fly 10,000 miles, risk being jailed as an alleged drug smuggler, or use a rebreather to photograph lionfish. As most of us all know, the winged buggers have invaded the gentle waters of green moray eels and Nassau grouper. Yes, from the Bahamas down toVenezuela, and from Boston to Bermuda, the lionfish, formerly known as a Pacific species, has, like many New Yorkers, moved permanently to Florida and the Caribbean. How this critter landed on this side of the world is a source of debate and, ultimately, it doesn’t matter how. The bigger question is how many. Their population is surging to the point that divers are being asked to shoot first and ask questions later. Questions like, “does it taste better with lemon butter or with garlic salt?” Finally we can kill and eat a fish without eco-warriors reigning giant fireballs of guilt down upon us. Governments and conservation organizations are actually imploring divers to seek and destroy this invasive and, fortunately quite delicious, fish.
When the experts realized that lionfish were not going to pack their little bags and go home, it became politically correct to obliterate the beautiful fish. Tournaments (commonly called “derbies”) have been sprouting up everywhere throughout the Bahamas and up and down the Florida Keys. One event near Key Largo in 2010 netted a total of 534 lionfish speared in one day. The winning team brought in 111 fish. REEF, the Reef Environmental Education Foundation, has been pushing the lionfish eradication agenda, even publishing a lionfish cookbook (they say it tastes kind of like lobster). There’s a special pole spear (it’s shorter) made for the spiny critter. A website called www.deathtolionfish.org has maps, recipes, and a humorous YouTube Public Service Announcement. Well, it’s supposed to be funny. And REEF’s website (www.reef.org) is the ultimate lionfish resource. REEF also holds numerous derbies. In 2011, REEF-sponsored derbies brought in 3,542 lionfish. Basically a whole cottage industry is spawning, almost as fast as the fish themselves.
The overriding question remains: can we actually eradicate these pests from our waters. I have two words for you: Dodo bird. Oh, and western buffalo. Um, how about sea cow. Did I say Bengal tigers? Hell, you get the idea. Give mankind a gun and we should be able to wipe out any species we set our mind to. We’re that good. Especially when the species in question tastes delicious.
“With current technology and resources, eradication is not on the table,” says Lad Akins, who was the director of REEF for many years but has now focused his energy toward lionfish management full time. “Local control is definitely possible by organizing divers in key areas. That can really keep the population down at those specific sites.”
Two issues are working against lionfish extermination. One, they can live as deep as 600 feet, far beyond any diver’s range. And, two, they procreate like sea jack rabbits. A single female can reproduce every four days and spawn more than two-million eggs in a year. Even Mormon’s can’t populate that fast.
Akins, now REEF’s Director of Special Projects, has deep concerns. “People worry about climate change and fishing quotas and a lot of different issues but if we can’t control the lionfish expansion, it may trump every other ocean issue we’re dealing with.”
Those are heavy words from a guy who knows his way around the marine environment and more about lionfish than anyone on the planet. He co-authored the LionfishCookbook, has been studying them full time since 2004 and has collected hundreds of specimens. Of course, spearing and eating lionfish might sound like a party but it’s not without risk. Their 18 spines are highly toxic and cause severe pain when poked into soft human flesh. The fish are not aggressive although they have been known to charge and attack the exposed hands of unsuspecting aquarium owners who are cleaning the fish’s glass prison. And, the spines are razor sharp, which more and more spearfishing persons are learning. Removing them from a spear tip or just transferring them into a catch bag is an accident in the making.
“Most people who’ve been collecting lionfish have been stung one or two times,” Akins admitted. “And it’s almost always when somebody is not using proper equipment or not paying attention. Lionfish are not aggressive.”
The pain can be excruciating but can quickly be diminished by putting your hand (that’s where 95% of the injuries occur) into a container of very hot water between 104 and 110 degrees, better known as your neighbor’s hot tub. Do not pee on the wound, especially when you’re in the hot tub. Urine will not lessen the pain. Nor will vinegar. Hot water is the ticket.
In addition to intense pain, victims experience swelling, redness, nausea, headache and extreme embarrassment from doing something stupid. While symptoms generally only last an hour to a few hours, some have experienced pain and tingling for days or weeks. Death by lionfish sting is not impossible, although there are no records of anyone ever dying from major pokage. In extreme cases seizures and even paralysis has occurred.
“It all depends on the severity,” explained Akins,who has been stung numerous times. “A small poke is like a handful of hornets. A severe sting can be debilitating.”
The good news for those who like to eat lionfish is that their population is extensive. That is also the bad news. The first sightings began on Florida’s southeast coast in the 1980s. Some have postulated that Hurricane Andrew crushed enough aquariums to spill some lionfish into the ocean. Others think that aquarium owners may have discarded lionfish knowingly into the Atlantic. Another theory is that juvenile lionfish or their larvae traveled in ship’s holds all the way from the Pacific and were squirted from the bilge into the sea. How the aliens landed may never be agreed upon but we know for a fact that in a few decades, the lionfish has become a monumental threat. They have no natural predators but are voracious predators themselves eating reef fish that would normally be the diet of grouper, snapper, and other endemic critters we divers love. Therein is the biggest problem. The fear is that native populations will be displaced by armies of lionfish until one day, this favorite fish of aquarium lovers will be the sole surviving inhabitant of the natural reef.
The lionfish invasion, as it is commonly referred to, has achieved a level that has attracted the attention of the government. Now NOAA is involved. Their scientists speculate that we will never eradicate lionfish in the Atlantic and Caribbean and NOAA’s website offers “five main suggestions:” 1)Track the lionfish population 2)Conduct more studies 3)Educate the public 4)Notify authorities about venomous fish 5)Make more regulations
Hey NOAA, I have a suggestion for number six: Shoot them, cook them, and eat them! It’s what I call the Four C’s of Fishing – Catch it, Clean it, Cook it, Consume it. Certainly you have to respect the scientific community and their expertise but if divers continue to mobilize and hunt with steel spears versus venomous spines, and if we keep the smell of grilled fish dancing in our heads, then there’s no telling what we can achieve. As Akins suggests, we can limit the lionfish’s impact on popular dive sites. Plus we can have some epic fish fries all in the name of environmental responsibility. I’ll bring the beer.
As seen in Scuba Sport Magazine- The Magazine Geared For The Recreational Diver
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