By Jillian Morris Brake
In their natural habitat Indo-Pacific lionfish are an elegant addition to any coral reef, dancing along with their featherlike fins. With no natural predators, however, the Atlantic Ocean has become a playground for these voracious hunters, leading to an unprecedented population explosion of this invasive species. It has taken less than a decade for them to exploit the waters from Massachusetts to Florida, East to Bermuda and South into the Caribbean and Central America. Research has found that they consume over 50 different species including juvenile grouper and snapper, both, species economically and environmentally important for the Bahamas. Their rapid growth rate and ability to reproduce every 55 days also allows them outdo any possible competitors in region. This “curse of the Caribbean,” has made itself comfortable in the crystal clear and diverse waters of the Bahamas and the islands of Bimini are no exception.
Speculation of their introduction the Atlantic includes fish released or lost during Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and aquariums with filtration systems directly linked to the ocean. More important than their arrival is their removal from the ecosystem they are plowing through like an out of control freight train. Dive clubs and shops, conservation groups and recreational divers are stepping up to take action. Restaurants are now serving them as a delicacy while dive operations host rodeos and derbies to wipe out as many as possible. This may seem brutal, but what is brutal is the destruction these beautiful fish are leaving in their wake. Invasive species are always a threat to the delicate balance of an ecosystem, but when they thrive in their new environment the situation becomes extremely dangerous and lionfish seem to agree that it is, “Better in the Bahamas.”
On July 12-14, The Bimini Sands Resort and Marina will once again team up with the Woody Foundation for the third annual Lionfish Bash. The tournament was created to raise money for victims of spinal cord injuries and remove as many lionfish as possible from the waters surrounding Bimini. James “Woody” Beckham grew up diving and fishing off Bimini, but a freak Rugby accident in 2011 left him paralyzed from the chest down. His family and friends created the Woody Foundation and together the team is fighting to better the lives of people and the environment. In 2012 the tournament removed 345 lionfish and raised nearly $21,000.
The use of spearguns is illegal in the Bahamas and spearfishing cannot be done on scuba unless special permission is granted. This means the lionfish must be taken with pole spears or Hawaiian slings by freedivers. While their featherlike fins are beautiful, the dorsal, ventral and anal spines are venomous to the touch. Designed to deter predators, human contact with the spines is not fatal, but can cause a great deal of pain, swelling and even paralysis. Putting the contact site in hot water as soon as possible reduces the impact of the venom. It is a good idea to take a thermos of hot water with you if plan on targeting lionfish. You can also use the water coming out of the engine if need be. Reactions vary based on a person’s sensitivity to the venom.
In 2012 the fish from the tournament were used as bait for a shark snorkel in hopes that Caribbean reef sharks might get the taste for this prey and eventually seek them out. Gabriela Alvarez won for junior angler with a 30.60 oz. lionfish. Team G & R caught 143 lionfish and David Mills won with the largest lionfish weighing in at 35.65 oz. Winners received beautifully crafted trophies and a stack of great prizes. The silent auction was filled with a wide range of prizes including a free stay at Bimini Sands and custom-made pole spears.
Hopefully in the future there will be no need for tournaments like this, but in the meantime it is a great combination of competition, conservation and charity benefiting all who are involved and the oceans we all love. For more information check out www.woodyfoundation.org.