Why Divers In Bonaire Are So Eager To Kill The Beautiful Lionfish

Nov 10, 2014
Originally published on November 11, 2014 12:56 pm

On the wall at the Buddy Dive Resort on the Caribbean island of Bonaire there's an Old West-style poster. It sums up the feelings here about the beautiful lionfish, pictured with its plume of featherlike fins and amber and white stripes.

"Wanted: Dead," reads the poster.

The poster is an advertisement for a lionfish hunting course in Bonaire, a scuba diver's paradise off the coast of Venezuela. The surrounding reef is a kaleidoscope of corals, sponges and exotic fish. But in recent years, it has also become home to the lionfish — an invasive species native to the Pacific and Indian oceans.

It's believed aquarium owners first dumped lionfish off the coast of Florida in the mid-1980s. Since then, the fish have spawned at a rate that would make rabbits blush. Lionfish are now devouring reef fish from North Carolina across the Caribbean.

Bonaire is fighting back, training divers to hunt the predatory creature.

Instructor Mariska De Waard guides me through a short classroom session about the venomous fish, the damage it's doing to reefs, and how to hunt it without further harming the reef — or myself.

"On the reef in the shallows, we have a nice line with little balls of foam and little bottles we can use as a practice to shoot," says De Waard.

What we'll be shooting is a short, spring-loaded spear called the ELF, which stands for "Eliminate Lion Fish." It's the only spear Bonaire's government allows in its protected marine park, and it can only be used on lionfish.

We suit up and splash into the clear, 82-degree water. After I successfully shoot a couple of foam balls without flailing around, De Waard leads us down the lush reef.

Moments into the dive, we spot a small lionfish. This one is doing what lionfish usually do: hovering around in a little coral shelter. It looks quite beautiful, kind of an aquatic wolf in sheep's clothing that gobbles up other fish that keep the reef healthy.

De Waard shoots this one and shoves it into the Zookeeper — a PVC tube with a funnel at one end. You stuff the fish in and then pull out the spear, leaving the creature trapped inside.

Reef sharks are a rare sight here, and there's no worry about them chasing your catch. In fact, that's the problem — there are no natural lionfish predators in the Atlantic.

Next, it's my turn. After a couple of near-misses, I find my groove and shoot 16 over the course of my three training dives.

With that, I join the growing legion of certified lionfish hunters.

Pepe Mastropaolo, the course instructor at Buddy Dive, designed the lionfish hunting program for the Professional Association of Diving Instructors two years ago. "The important thing is we are training people to remove this invasive species from our reefs," he says.

Mastropaolo says more than 500 divers have taken the course. While many are tourists and will spend only a short time here, a growing number of local residents are getting certified.

"I would say at any given time, there's about 30 people on the island who are actively hunting," says Rita Peachey, the director of the Council on International Educational Exchange research center in Bonaire. She says the first fish was spotted in 2009 — some two decades after the species was released off Florida.

Patrick Lyons, a professor at CIEE, says that hunting is the only effective method of controlling the lionfish population.

"We're certainly keeping their numbers low, and the numbers are much lower than other places where they're not being actively hunted," he says.

For example, in the waters off nearby Curacao and Aruba, the lionfish population is 10 times that of their natural habitat.

And with the hunting comes eating.

Bonaire wants to create demand for the fish — on your plate. Once the venomous spines are cut off, lionfish are safe to handle and — more important — to eat.

I bring my catch to Ingredients Restaurant at Buddy Dive Resort. It has a weekly lionfish dinner, and the place is packed to the gills.

Chef Ellen Bross and her crew quickly fillet my fish and prepare several of their favorite dishes: pan-seared in olive oil and butter, lime and basil ceviche, beer-and-pesto-battered fritters.

The fish is light, tender, moist, and has a mild taste reminiscent of Mediterranean sea bass.

"It's not a very fishy fish," says Bross. "I don't like fish, but I like lionfish."

I like fish, and I would order lionfish over many others. And if eating them helps save Atlantic reefs, then all the better.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

This next story is about a small nation taking on an invasive species - Bonaire versus the lionfish. The Caribbean island is off the coast of Venezuela. It's a scuba diver's paradise. The surrounding reef is a kaleidoscope of corals, sponges and exotic fish. And as NPR's Sean Carberry reports, the country is now equipping divers to take on the predatory fish that threatens its ecosystem.

SEAN CARBERRY, BYLINE: There is an old-West style wanted poster here on the wall at Bonaire's Buddy Dive Resort. It features a picture of a lion fish with its plume of featherlike fins and amber and white stripes. It doesn't say dead or alive - just dead. It's an advertisement for a lionfish hunting course. It got my attention.

MARISKA DEWAARD: My name is Mariska De Waard. And I'm your - I'm fish instructor.

CARBERRY: We start with a short classroom session about the venomous fish and the damage it's doing to reefs. We go over how to shoot the fish without harming the reef, and then, we suit up.

DEWAARD: So what we are going to do is we're going to go out on the reef in the shallows. We have a nice line with little balls of foam and little bottles that we can use as a practice to shoot.

CARBERRY: We'll be shooting a short, spring-loaded spear called the ELF which stands for Eliminate Lion Fish. It's the only spear Bonaire's government allows in the protected marine park, and it can only be used on lionfish. After I successfully shoot a couple of foam balls without flailing around, De Waard leads us down the lush reef. Moments into the dive, we spot a small lionfish. They can grow up to 18 inches. It's hovering around in a little coral shelter. It looks quite beautiful - kind of an aquatic wolf in sheep's clothing that gobbles up other fish that keep the reef healthy. De Waard shoots this one and shoves it into the zookeeper. It's a PVC tube with a funnel at one end. You stuff the fish in and pull out the spear leaving the creature trapped inside. There are no sharks here that you have to worry about chasing your catch. In fact, that's the problem. There are no natural lionfish predators in the Atlantic. Next, it's my turn. After a couple of near misses, I find my groove and shoot 16 over the course of my three training dives.

DEWAARD: That's for you.

CARBERRY: De Waard hands me my card. With that, I joined the growing legion of certified lionfish hunters. More than 500 divers have taken the course in Bonaire since it started two years ago. Dr. Patrick Lyons is a marine scientist in Bonaire. He says that hunting is the only effective method of controlling lionfish population.

PATRICK LYONS: I mean were certainly keeping their numbers low and as the numbers here are much lower than other places where they are not being actively hunted.

CARBERRY: And with the hunting comes eating. Bonaire wants to create demand for the fish on your plate. Once the venomous spines are cut off, lionfish are safe to handle and more importantly, to eat.

MATT COOK: Can we bring some more lionfish?

CARBERRY: Chicago native, Matt Cook presents his catch to one of Buddy Dive's restaurants. Cook got his lionfish certification here last year. He says hunting lionfish makes diving more exciting. And the payoff is eating his prey.

COOK: We compare it to sea bass - flaky, good, you know, white fish.

CARBERRY: I bring my catch to Ingredients Restaurant at Buddy Dive Resort. They have a weekly lionfish dinner. Chef Ellen Bross and her crew quickly fillet my fish and prepare several of their favorite dishes. They pan sear it, make lime and basil ceviche and fry up beer and pesto battered fritters.

Hot. It's nice. Yeah, I mean, it's really, very tender.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: It's not a very fishy fish. I like it. I don't like fish - but I like lionfish.

CARBERRY: Really?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yeah.

CARBERRY: I like fish, and I would order lionfish over many others. And if eating them helps save Atlantic reefs, all the better. Sean Carberry, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.