Earth Day: Saving our Reefs from invasive Lionfish

April 22, 2019
Is Bonaire Bucket List Worthy for Diving?
Lisa Niver diving at Salt Pier in Bonaire. Photo by Aalia Udawala

I love to SCUBA dive and learn about our seas. When I went to Bonaire for the first time in Nov 2016, I learned about the Lionfish issues and tasted my first tasty meal made from this invasive species. At VIP diving, they informed me about their Lionfish Hunting Specialty course that I could come back and take.

The Lionfish have invaded the Caribbean and they have no natural predators. They are not native to the area and they are devouring our reefs. I went to a summit at the DEMA conference in November 2018 to learn more. Here are some of the people working to solve this problem and how you can get involved.
MarthaWatkins Gilkes and Alex Fogg from Lionfish University filleting lionfish after the assessment dives

Lionfish University

We are a group dedicated to preserving our oceans’ reefs and native fish populations, which are threatened in the western Atlantic, the Caribbean, and the Gulf of Mexico by the invasive lionfish. We formed this non-profit to share information and resources relating to the infestation of this invasive species.

Our goal is to raise awareness of the importance of maintaining these fragile ecosystems in the global community, and to fund efforts to mitigate the devastating effects of this invasive species.

Lionfish University recently was invited by private donors from the Mill Reef Club on Antigua to make an exploratory trip to assess the state of the marine ecosystem of the island, due to concern about declining health of their reefs. A team of five Lionfish University volunteers headed by Dr. Steve Gittings, chief scientist of the NOAA Marine Sanctuary System, completed a survey of the reefs focused on damage due to the lionfish invasion. A general stakeholders’ meeting was held to gauge the level of knowledge and possible participation on the part of fishermen, artisans, chefs, restaurants, the Fisheries Department and others. Dr. Gittings will be preparing a report of the findings and suggested control methods. If a return visit is requested the Lionfish University group may possibly teach islanders to put on a derby/festival as well as workshops in trap building, jewelry making and culling techniques, among others. The team was interviewed by a local TV station, radio station and newspaper, and did a presentation to a local community group to raise awareness about the lionfish invasion, and steps that can be taken to help restore reef health. Every individual’s effort makes a difference!

L to R Crew member, Alex Fogg, Mehgan Heaney-Grier, Dr Steve Gittings from NOAA on fishing boat off of Antigua. Alex speared 45 invasive lionfish in 20 min of bottom time while Mehgan and Dr Gittings did an assessment of reef health.

Visit St. Lucia and learn about Lionfish

At Scuba St Lucia,  they approach the lionfish invasion from many different angles. They actively teach the PADI Invasive Lionfish Tracker Course. In the last 2 years they have certified 128 students in the safe and effective ways of culling Lionfish. We strongly believe in the certification process as it teaches proper buoyancy and thinking beyond the lionfish. Many untrained spear fishermen are doing damage to the reefs by aggressively spearing the lionfish causing their spear to hit the reef.
At the Anse Chastanet Resort, they  have a Lionfish aquarium on property and educate divers and non-divers alike and every Tuesday there is a presentation featuring the lionfish aquarium.
Karolin Troubetzkoy from Scuba St Lucia and Lisa Niver at DEMA
Karolin Troubetzkoy from Scuba St Lucia and Lisa Niver at DEMA
They partner with the St. Lucia dive association (ANBAGLO) to participate in lionfish derbies. Scuba St. Lucia won the last derby. 1st place for the most lionfish caught (230LBS in 4 hours), 1st place for the largest lionfish caught and 2nd place for the smallest lionfish caught. After the derbies we put on a cooking and educational seminar in the local town of Soufriere, St. Lucia, the locals LOVE to eat the meat.
At the Anse Chastanet and Jade Mountain Resorts, lionfish is on the menu and there is a Gourmet Lionfish Dinner offered every Friday night. “Eat Them To Beat Them” is our Executive Chef’s Degustation menu with paired new world wines showcasing the quality and taste of this very unique fish. Whether served as sashimi, ceviche, simply grilled or stewed creole style, lionfish is always delicious.
Lionfish photo by Scuba St Lucia
Lionfish photo by Scuba St Lucia

For Earth Day 2019, Scuba St. Lucia will host a dive against debris and a lionfish culling day to help promote conservation of our delicate reef eco-system. Scuba St. Lucia Team members actively cull lionfish when not busy accommodating our guests. We remove at least a few hundred pounds monthly. As well we monitor for increasing or decreasing numbers of lionfish.

Save the Planet Eat Lionfish 1

Save the Planet, Eat Lionfish and use the “Cook Lionfish” Cook book

Why Cook Lion fish?
Lion fish are native to the Pacific, Indian Ocean and the Red Sea. Unfortunately, they have found their way into the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. Experts believe that the cause of the lion fish invasion is the dumping of unwanted lion fish from aquariums into the Atlantic for over 2 decades. Lion fish have no natural predators in these waters and are ferocious predators themselves, like vacuum cleaners that suck the life out of the ocean. The invasive lion fish are a very real threat to our coral reefs and ecosystems.
They breed rapidly, releasing 15-20,000 eggs every 4 days and even the larvae have few predators! They eat juvenile fish and cleaners such as shrimp, that keep reef fish free from parasites. They are feeding on our key species such as juvenile parrot fish, algae and coral fight for photosynthesis. The parrot fish help keep the coral alive by feeding on the bad algae. If the algae smother the reef, the coral will die and there is no chance of recovery. It is estimated that marine plants produce between 70-80% of the oxygen that we need in order to survive. Without coral reefs, life as we know it cannot exist. The “eat em to beat em” campaign was launched by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in 2010 to encourage a seafood market as a means of mitigating the species’ impact on reef communities.

In 2003, Polly Alford founded a conservation diving organization in Belize. She encountered her first lion fish in 2009 and was subsequently shocked by the rapid invasion. Her organization introduced a project to remove them, collect data and create local and national awareness.
In 2016 Polly decided to enroll her twin sister, Claire (a chef in the UK) in a project to combine their skills and write a lion fish cookbook. The objective was to write easy to follow recipes using lion fish, to create tasty dishes for home cooking.
The recipes in this book demonstrate the versatility of this fish and the good news is that lion fish is not only delicious but also high in omega 3. We wrote this book to encourage you to cook one of the most sustainable foods available whilst helping to reduce this potentially catastrophic environmental problem. Buy the book on Amazon: “Cook Lionfish” Cook book

Save the Planet Eat Lionfish 2

Do you want to cull Lionfish?

Texas Lionfish Control Unit is ready to help you help the planet!

They are committed to the local control of lionfish in Texas, the Gulf of Mexico, and any waters where they have become invasive and detrimental to the ecosystem.  We are aware that, at this point,  eradication is not possible, but we will work towards removing as many lionfish as we can and giving native fish a chance to survive and thrive.
Join an expedition, take a training course or join an eco-trip at their primary hunting ground in Pensacola, Florida – the Lionfish Capital of the World.  Pensacola is the home of the Lionfish World Championship Spearfishing Tournament.
Lionfish are an invasive species first introduced into the ocean in Florida and rapidly spread throughout the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean and South America. They are an ecological disaster. Lionfish are voracious eaters, consuming large quantities of native reef fish (30-40/hour). There are no known predators here to keep populations in check. They spawn every 3-5 days, averaging 50,000 eggs per spawn and are widely distributed by ocean currents. Lionfish indiscriminately eat ecologically and commercially important fish in an area, leaving reefs barren and dying. TLCU works with NOAA National Marine Sanctuary, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), Texas Parks & Wildlife, Harte Research Institute, and other organizations on lionfish related education, removal, and research.
Invasive lionfish disrupt the balance of the ocean ecosystem. They unsustainably consume juvenile native fish and outcompete other predators for food sources, thus depleting the natural resources. Removal of lionfish restores the balance of the native fish community, saving the health of the coral reefs, and protecting the fragile eco-system that we depend on. As we train more divers, and increase public awareness, we increase the number of people that are removing lionfish.
Texas Lionfish control Unit Brady Hale and Lisa Niver
Texas Lionfish control Unit Brady Hale and Lisa Niver

Want to learn more about Lionfish Derbies?

Visit Reef Environmental Education Foundation for more information. A lionfish derby is a single day competition to collect and remove as many lionfish as possible. Teams collect lionfish by netting or spearing while SCUBA diving, free diving, or snorkeling. Teams begin competing at sunrise and are required to bring their catch to the scoring station by 5:00 pm. Each fish is measured, and prizes are awarded for teams catching the most, biggest, and smallest lionfish. The public is invited to watch scoring, taste free lionfish samples, watch filleting and dissection demonstrations, and ask questions about lionfish.

Why are Derbies important?

Although invasive lionfish are widely dispersed throughout the Atlantic, Caribbean, and Gulf of Mexico, a large portion of the general public still does not know about the problem. In addition, there are many myths and much misinformation regarding the biology and ecology of lionfish. Lionfish derbies serve to educate participants and the public and raise awareness of the problem. Significant local, national, and international media coverage of derby events has helped facilitate education to those not geographically connected to the invaded range.

Since 2006, REEF has been working in close partnership with government agencies and partners throughout the region to help develop lionfish response plans, train resource managers and dive operators in effective collecting and handling techniques and conduct cutting edge research to help address the invasion. To aid in this effort, REEF currently enlists interested divers and snorkelers to join organized lionfish research and removal projects and encourages public participation in helping address the invasion.

DEMA Lionfish Update
DEMA Lionfish Update

Join a Lionfish Eco-Tour

At Coast Watch Alliance, they are bringing awareness to and actively combating invasive lionfish through community outreach and awareness, organized and systematic lionfish harvesting, and commercial market and supply infrastructure development for lionfish foodstuffs and processed products.

What if you get Stung? Information from DAN – Divers Action Network

If you are stung, remain calm. Notify the dive leader and your buddy. The priority is to safely end your dive, returning to the surface following a normal ascent rate. Do not skip any decompression obligation.  Click here for first aid providers steps.

Want to build your own Traps?  NOAA can help

NOAA and its partners have developed and released designs for new lionfish traps that could provide the first realistic means of controlling invasive deep-water lionfish populations and support the development of a lionfish fishery. Learn more about the lionfish traps.
The Invasive Lionfish Web Portal is a clearinghouse for all vetted invasive lionfish information and serves as a platform to promote discussion and inquiry. The authors of the Web Portal, which include U.S. federal employees, non-profit managers, research scientists, state biologists, professors, and Ph.D. students, bring a wealth of knowledge and experience on the lionfish invasion.
Lionfish Summit at DEMA Nov 2018


Join esteemed panelists to discuss the latest invasive lionfish issues, including innovations driving future directions for the dive industry, fishing communities and markets.  Brief presentations by panelists will be followed by an open question and answer session and discussion. Discussions will focus on how to continue to engage divers and the public in participating in removal efforts, derbies and what information managers and scientist can provide to help improve these efforts.

Presented by:

Brian Asher; Coast Watch Alliance; Lionfish Northern Gulf of Mexico and LRAD

Alli Candelmo, PhD; Reef Environmental Education Foundation; Derbies and Research

Alex Fogg; Okaloosa County Board of County Commissioners; Emerald Cost Convention Center and Visitors Bureau, Commercial Lionfish Fishing

Stacy Frank; Lionfish University; Summary from Field Reporters, Outreach

Steve Gittings, PhD; NOAA National Marine Sanctuaries; Lionfish FADs and Traps

Stephanie Green, PhD; University of Alberta, Lionfish Research: Learn more about The Green Lab

Bob Harris; DEMA Legislative Consultant; Messer Caparello, PA, Diver Involvement

Jay Maly; Scuba St. Lucia; Ecotourism, St. Lucia Spearing and Trapping Efforts

Georgi Merlusca; Scuba St. Lucia; Ecotourism, St. Lucia Spearing and Trapping Efforts

Lionfish Summit at DEMA Nov 2018
Lionfish Summit at DEMA Nov 2018

Learn more in this article from Dive Training by Grant Currin: US VS. THEM: AN UPDATE ON CONTROLLING INVASIVE LIONFISH IN THE CARIBBEAN


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