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Managing Belize’s Lionfish Invasion

Can we really eat enough lionfish to save the reefs?

Story by Blue Ventures July 25th, 2016

The most remarkable reef

Stretching for 300 km along the coastline of Belize in Central America, the Belize Barrier Reef is one of the most pristine reef ecosystems in the Western Hemisphere. Charles Darwin referred to it ‘as the most remarkable reef in the West Indies’, and its network of marine protected areas was recognised as a World Heritage Site in 1996. It attracts nearly half of Belize’s tourists each year and supports a large community of fishers, but it is under ever increasing pressure from numerous threats including an unwelcome visitor from the Pacific ocean.

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INTRODUCING A MARINE VILLAIN

With its ornately patterned body and fan-like fins, the Pacific red lionfish (Pterois volitans) is a striking creature. It is also a fiendishly successful predator. Hovering above the reef with its fins splayed wide, the lionfish slowly stalks its prey before gulping it down whole, scales and all.

It is this unfussy nature that has made the red lionfish one of the biggest threats to marine life in the Atlantic Ocean, where it was accidentally introduced in the late 1980s. It eats almost any small fish or crustacean and is found in a wide range of habitats. In its native range in the western Pacific Ocean, the lionfish is an integral part of the marine ecosystem and its prey have had millions of years to evolve to its stealthy hunting methods. But here in the Atlantic, it’s a newcomer with an abundance of naïve prey and no natural predators, so it grows larger, faster and occurs in greater densities than it does in the Pacific.

Since the mid-2000s the lionfish population has undergone a rapid explosion. Voracious, venomous, and a prolific breeder to boot, it poses a huge threat to reefs, fisheries and coastal communities. Although the first official lionfish sighting in the Atlantic was recorded in the Florida Keys in 1985, it didn’t invade Belizean waters until 2008. Since then it has spread to both deep and shallow coral reefs, from offshore atolls to nearshore reefs, mangroves and seagrass beds: it seems nowhere is safe.

Photo: Laetitia Clement

The science: understanding what’s happening on the reef

Successful invasions of marine ecosystems by predatory fish are extremely rare, so the current lionfish invasion has provoked strong interest and concern amongst the scientific community. It has been closely monitored from the outset, and we now have plenty of evidence that shows lionfish can have dramatic negative impacts on native fish communities. The invaders reduce the breeding success and abundance of a wide range of coral reef fishes, and native predators do not seem to be able to control their numbers. Models predict that unmanaged lionfish populations may cause the loss of species at certain sites, and in the long term, the decline of apex predators.
Tragically, the loss of lionfish prey animals can disrupt the whole reef ecosystem. Many of its common prey, such as parrotfish, are herbivores that play an important role in controlling algal growth on reefs, in turn helping to maintain coral health and diversity. Their loss, compounded by other factors such as overfishing and destructive fishing techniques, has been associated with a phase shift from coral to algal-dominated communities on deep-water reefs, causing a decline in corals and sponges.

What’s more, the lionfish has a clear preference for small, cigar-shaped fish, which is very bad news for juvenile fish in general and Belize’s endemic social wrasse (Halichoeres socialis) in particular. Restricted to the Belize Barrier Reef World Heritage Site, this fish was already classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List before the lionfish invasion struck the region.

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Encouragingly, Blue Ventures’ own research undertaken in Belize in 2015 suggests local lionfish populations are still low across a variety of sites, with many coral reefs surveyed showing lionfish populations below the threshold at which their presence begins to impact the food web. Our staff and volunteers are continuing to investigate why this might be; is the fluctuation in density merely a characteristic of the establishment of this invasive species? Or are recreational divers and the growing lionfish fishery helping to control the population?

In order to mitigate the effects of overfishing, tourism and climate change, much of the Belize Barrier Reef is protected by a network of marine reserves, but these of course do not protect reefs against lionfish. Another approach is required, and Blue Ventures along with other organisations across the country is calling on seafood enthusiasts to do their part…

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A REDEEMING QUALITY

Fortunately, the red lionfish has one redeeming quality: it is delicious! Many people are still unaware that lionfish is venomous, not poisonous, and is completely safe to eat. Its flesh is flaky and buttery, and can be prepared in the same way as better-known fish such as grouper or snapper. Controlling this invasive species via human consumption – #eatemtobeatem – has become widely accepted as the most practical method. In theory at least. Demand for lionfish is growing as more chefs try cooking with this versatile, high quality fish, but the nascent ‘lionfishery’ still has some important hurdles to leap.

Photo: Gordon Kirkwood
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building a local market

Conservationists in Belize, and elsewhere in the affected region, are encouraging people to catch, sell and eat the invading lionfish to help control the population. Adopting a market-based approach through fishery development will deliver several benefits: an active fishery incentivises high volume, regular removals by fishers over large areas, it reduces dependency on external financing for control, and it provides fishers with an alternative to declining traditional fisheries species.

To achieve this, Blue Ventures is speaking to restaurants, consumers and fishers to catalyse the growth of the domestic market for lionfish meat.

A holistic social marketing campaign is now under way to help break down these barriers and stimulate the growth of the fishery. Campaign materials are being displayed at water taxi terminals in Belize City and along main street Caye Caulker, Belize’s popular island tourism destination that maintains a strong fishing culture. Over this same period radio adverts are being broadcast, and t-shirts and stickers with the slogan ‘Eat da lion! Da fu wi island vibes’ have been distributed amongst restaurants serving lionfish, as prizes for competitions, and at Blue Ventures’ lionfish information and taster booths. Blue Ventures holds these booths regularly at national events and fairs across the country, from Placencia’s Lobsterfest to the National Agriculture and Trade Show in Belmopan, where they present information about the lionfish invasion in a variety of fun ways for visitors of all ages.

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ADDING VALUE - LIONFISH JEWELLERY

Sarteneja Fishermen Association carried out a study 2013 with BV to investigate the potential for different value-added product lines for lionfish – specifically looking at ways to increase the value of lionfish catch to fishermen. Jewellery was found to be the most feasible intervention requiring the least investment. The booths also provide an opportunity to display the jewellery created by the Belize Lionfish Jewelry Group, which was set up with assistance from Blue Ventures.

These 19 women, from seven of Belize’s coastal fishing communities, work together to produce jewellery made from lionfish fins and spines. In using these previously discarded parts, the fisher can receive an increased income of 40% on his lionfish catch. For the jewellers, this new business presents an opportunity to gain economic independence and diversify their household income.

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The group has made rapid and inspiring progress, with huge interest in the beautiful jewellery its members produce. Head to http://facebook.com/belizelionfishjewelry to discover more about this group and find out where you can buy their products.

As a visitor to Belize, you can help by ordering lionfish in restaurants as often as possible and by buying lionfish jewellery souvenirs. It’s a delicious and socially responsible way to help save the reef!

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Volunteer in Belize with Blue Ventures - join our unique and award winning lionfish expedition!

Blue Ventures would like to thank the Belize Fisheries Department for their ongoing partnership and support related to lionfish management, the Sarteneja Fishermen Association for close partnership developing lionfish markets, Dr Stephanie Green, Lad Akins (Reef Environmental Education Foundation), Dr James Morris and Alex Bogdanoff (NOAA) and Prof. Jennifer Solomon (Colorado State University) for partnership related to strategising lionfish control efforts, and all members of the National Coral Reef Monitoring Network, in particular to Southern Environmental Association for their collaboration running the annual Placencia Lionfish Tournament, and the Toledo Institute for Development and Environment for supporting monitoring countrywide.
We would also like to thank the MAR Fund, Summit Foundation and the WWF Russel E. Grant Education for Nature Program for supporting this work.

Footnote: Text by Jen Chapman and Louise Jasper 2016 | Photos by Blue Ventures volunteers and staff are unless credited in photo captions
Bacalar Chico, Belize
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