Belize Conservation volunteers join international efforts to control invasive lionfish
Over 1,000 lionfish have been captured and killed by Projects Abroad Conservation volunteers and staff in Belize, during their dives in marine parks near Placencia, between November 2016 and July 2017. This unusual conservation method forms part of an ongoing, worldwide effort to tackle the lionfish invasion that poses a major threat to native fish numbers.
Lionfish do not naturally exist in the Barrier Reef System in the Caribbean Sea and the invasive fish species, originally from the Indo-Pacific, was first seen in Belize waters around 2008. As predators themselves, they eat native reef fish at an alarming rate. “They have no natural predators,” explains Kristin Marin, Country Director for Projects Abroad Belize. “We have been seeing eels, groupers, and sharks eating them recently but oftentimes we need to spear the fish first before the sharks will eat them.”
Killing as a conservation method
The large appetite of the lionfish is not the only threat for local ecosystems; the high speed at which they reproduce is concerning as females are able to produce millions of eggs each year. “They produce 50,000 eggs every three days. While we might have killed over 1,000 lionfish, you can see how long it will take to remove all the eggs produced from just one lionfish,” explains Kristin.
For British volunteer, Susannah Jones, who volunteered for 24 weeks on the Conservation Project, and who was involved in the lionfish control from when the project started in November 2016, killing fish as a conservation method was not as unusual as you might think. “I do not like killing anything, but as a diver who has completed more than 200 dives around the world, I have seen lionfish before and I understand the problems they cause,” says Susannah. “I know killing lionfish benefits everything else.”
If you can’t beat them, eat them
Projects Abroad volunteers are trained by conservation staff to use a basic pole spear with a band that wraps around their wrists; they are also taught how to spear the fish. Once captured, lionfish do not go to waste. While underwater, volunteers place the dead lionfish in a makeshift five-gallon container, and once on shore, the venomous spikes are carefully removed and the fish is prepared for consumption.
The main, long-term, goal is to reduce lionfish numbers, therefore volunteers also focus on community outreach. “We encourage people to start eating and demanding the lionfish, so that more fishermen have an incentive to spear them in larger quantities,” says Kristin. “The meat is soft, white and delicious! It can be made into a ceviche or eaten straight off the grill with a bit of lime.”
Their spikes are also used in local markets. “Some locals make jewelry of the spines; you find them in little shops and as arts and crafts. I have my own necklace,” remarks Susannah.
Lionfish are not only a cause for concern in the waters off Belize but have also been a pest along the coastline of the Bahamas, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Atlantic Ocean. They have now also been spotted in Italian waters, proving an even greater need to control the species.
Susannah emphasises a need for conservation volunteers to not only control the problematic lionfish population, but to save the reefs in general: “Our reefs are so important; they’re not just pretty to look at. They help everyone because they are part of our world.”