Day 7: Journey to Cuba's underwater Eden

  • Lionfish

    LionfishThe invasive species, native to the Indo-Pacific Ocean and the Red Sea, is beautiful but destructive.Photo by: Fausto De Nevi Herrera

  • King of the sea?

    King of the sea?Three venomous lionfish line up on the sea floor like airplanes on a tarmac. They first arrived in the Gardens in 2009; now they are everywhere.Photo by: Ken Marks

  • Command central

    Command centralAboard the Waitt Institute’s expedition vessel, writer Rod Griffin consults with TNC’s Phil Kramer about the dive plan.Photo by: Ian Shive, courtesy of The Nature Conservancy

  • Armed and dangerous

    Armed and dangerousLionfish are known to eat grunts, damsalfish and young parrotfish, which are the so-called sanitation engineers of the reef because they eat algae and keep the coral healthy.Photo by: Fausto De Nevi Herrera

By Rod Griffin

Invasion of the lionfish

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When EDF’s Rod Fujita dons scuba gear, he enters a Zen-like zone of tranquility. This seems to be common among practiced divers. Among other things, it helps them conserve air and be less conspicuous in their movements.

Alas, I haven’t yet mastered the technique. Fujita, in contrast, takes this mindset to another level. He is remarkably focused and alert on a dive.

Today, descending to 90 feet, he watches closely as a lionfish doggedly pursues a yellow and purple fairy basslet. Some fish are known to puff water to flip over sea urchins, but the lionfish is the only species known to puff water to disorient its prey, making it easier to catch.

The other odd thing about lionfish is that they shouldn’t be here. The species is native to the Indo-Pacific Ocean and the Red Sea, but is believed to have been released into the Atlantic by fish collectors in Miami sometime in the early 1990s. It has since spread up the East Coast past North Carolina and through the Caribbean. (see time-lapsed map)

Blue gobies

Blue chromis, a small plankton-eating damselfish, is one of several species preyed upon by lionfish.

Photo by: Ken Marks

The first sighting in the Gardens was in 2009 – and now they are everywhere. We see twenty or thirty on every dive. “In more than 200 dives in the Bahamas, I haven’t seen them this big or in this density,” says expedition team member Ken Marks. “It’s scary.”

Exotic but deadly

How can something so beautiful be so destructive? The problem is that lionfish have voracious appetites and and no known natural predators in the Western Atlantic. They can devastate fish populations wherever they feed.

Researchers found 50 species of prey fish inside their bellies, including juveniles of commercially important grouper and snapper. For lionfish, the Gardens, with its density and diversity of fish, is a virtual smorgasbord.

Scientists say one fish can produce 30,000 eggs in a single spawning event, and can spawn as frequently as every four days. You do the math.

What can be done?

One thing is clear to anyone swimming in these waters: Something needs to be done.

Here in the Gardens (at Avalon, the dive center), a specialist was brought in from Europe to demonstrate how to cull the species. He bagged 20 on one dive. When he asked a local guide to try his hand, he brought in 57. The locals know how to do this.

The folks at Avalon are also experimenting with teaching sharks to eat them. They may be one of the few animals with tough enough mouths to handle the lionfish’s venomous spines.

Expedition members prepare to dive.

Photo by: Rod Griffin

In Florida and the Bahamas, some communities now hold “fishing derbies,” one-day team competitions to collect as many lionfish as possible (with $3,000 in prizes). Sponsored by REEF, a non-profit organization committed to ocean protection, the derbies have a growing following.

Another potential solution is to promote the fish as food for another voracious predator: humans. Lionfish reportedly tastes good -- like hogfish.

But what is really needed to solve the lionfish problem is a Gulf-wide strategy, one that will engage the governments of Cuba, Mexico and the United States. EDF is working with colleagues to make that happen.