While on holiday in Utila at Utopia Village Dive Resort, our divemaster, Federico, informed us that we would be participating in a local Lionfish Derby. Being from the other side of the Atlantic, I was not familiar with this phenomenon in the Caribbean. I had seen Lionfish in past dive trips. I had seen them in the Red Sea and in Australia. I knew them to be beautiful underwater creatures with glorious poisonous spines. But what is a Lionfish Derby? Where we kill as many lionfish as we can. Oh.
Why do we want to kill these fish? Especially in a place where spearfishing is illegal would they encourage divers to arm themselves with as many Hawaiian slings as they can register? Lionfish are taking over the Caribbean. Oh.
See lionfish are intruders to the Caribbean and Atlantic waters. They were introduced over 20 years ago. Their source of introduction is still debatable, however, research and genetic testing shows multiple specimens are the forefathers of the current, massive Caribbean population. Whether they were released by aquarists, carried in ships ballasts, or brought by invaders, the lionfish population has exploded. The problem seems to be twofold. Predators do not recognize them as prey, and they are spawning like crazy. This has led to the Lionfish Invasion that spreads from as far north as New York, throughout the Caribbean and is heading down the Coast of South America.
Thus the lionfish has turned from a lovely, long-spined, must see tropical fish, to a hated, hunted, killer of the reef. Untouched by predators, lionfish are free to eat whatever they want, and they do. They are not picky eaters and can open their mouths wide to literally inhale fish their own size. Going after the nursery of fish who call the reef home, the lionfish have decimated reef populations. Until the Caribbean lionfish acquire natural predators, divers are taking action.
So on Tuesday, our group was briefed on the lionfish spearing protocol. Look under ledges, in the shadows, and search for the killers. Call one of the divemasters over to spear the fish. Hold your hand made pvc lionfish tube so the divemaster can put the kill in the top without the lionfish sticking him, or you, with poison, and put the lid on. At first I was hesitant. Could catching lionfish be thrilling? After the first enemy was speared, I was hooked. My next gear purchase will be a sling. And a PADI Lionfish Specialty to go along with it.
After two dives we had collected well over 40 fish. I figured this was already a record. I was informed that this was average. The captain went to town to turn in the catch and see the rest of the islands efforts. The results were in. Over 350 lionfish were caught that day. The most was 63. But the longest was 43 cm or 17 inches. That was us! We caught that monster! And later that night Chef Paul prepared the best ceviche and fish cakes I have ever eaten. Who knew?
Thanks to the staff at Utopia Village Dive Resort
Dave from Minnesota
For the most up to date and thorough information regarding lionfish, see the most comprehensive research at http://lionfish.gcfi.org/manual/?page=4#?page=0