D. T. Max has vividly sketched humans in competitive mode, harnessing tournament rules to address the aggressions of this introduced species. In the decades-long perspective, lionfish are winning the bigger tournament by adapting and expanding their range; but we admire the drive to end that success:
In the Panhandle, where swarms of lionfish gobble up native species, a tournament offers cash prizes to divers skilled at spearing one predator after another.
Rachel Bowman is a diver who specializes in the hunting, catching, and killing of lionfish, a species native to Indo-Pacific waters. Off the coast of Indonesia or Australia, an adult typically grows to about twelve inches; groupers, eels, and sharks are its natural predators, and in many countries divers cannot spear one without a permit. Lionfish have also long been popular in aquariums. Tens of thousands of American homes have them in saltwater tanks. Lionfish spend their days hovering in the water, which makes them particularly well suited to the job of being looked at. They are also striking, with shimmery white bodies overlaid with bold red or orange stripes, a Mohawk of spikes on their backs, and clashing patterns on their fins and faces. They look at once sleek and tacky. Bowman, who is forty-three, recalls that, in 2012, “when I first saw one, I thought it was a fish dressed up for Mardi Gras.” She wasn’t staring through aquarium glass, though, or diving off Japan. She was in the waters of the Florida Keys, a few miles from where she lives.At some point in the past half century, somewhere in the warmer latitudes of the Western Hemisphere, lionfish jumped from aquariums to natural salt water. The first recorded sighting was in 1985, off Dania Beach, just north of Miami. Lionfish have succeeded mightily in their new environment—there are now many millions of them in the Western Atlantic—and this is bad news: they are destructive to native species, devouring other sea creatures and upending the equilibrium of reef life. Although there is an obvious conservation benefit to eliminating lionfish, Bowman does not think of herself primarily as an environmentalist. She sees her targets as invaders, and considers it her job to repel them. “What you’re hunting isn’t prey—it’s the enemy,” she told me, adding, “Isn’t it nice to be on the side of the good guys?” She also appreciates the fact that there are no regulations about lionfish killing. “No bag limits, sex limits, seasons, boat limits, gear limits,” she said. “Lionfish is the only species that is one-hundred-per-cent wide open.” Hunting them is a throwback to an era when you could go into the water and come out of it with whatever you wanted—to an era, paradoxically, before conservation measures were needed.
Lionfish divers are a close-knit community, staying in one another’s houses, trading diving stories, and amiably competing for who can kill the most fish. Their goal is a balanced, usable ecosystem: killing a lionfish saves a yellowtail snapper that, in turn, can be caught for dinner. Hunting lionfish is satisfying but labor-intensive. They won’t chase a hook, and a dragnet is impractical, because it would snag on the reefs where they live. Lionfish must be killed one by one, with a pole spear: a metal rod, with jagged prongs at the end, that you launch through the water by deploying a rubber sling. There are many variations on these poles—three-foot, seven-foot, three-pronged, five-pronged—and they have such names as the Lionfish Buster and the Lionator.
In the past two decades, many divers have made hunting lionfish their obsession, but nobody appears to have done it with the intensity of Bowman. In the ten years that she has been diving, she has gone out roughly three times a week. An image of a lionfish spear is tattooed on her arm. On the Internet, there is a photograph of Bowman holding a pole spear studded with more than a dozen freshly killed lionfish—a gaudy fish kebab.
Lionfish can be dangerous: their spines contain one of the most powerful neurotoxins in the aquatic world; their Mohawk is venomous, as are the two spikes on their pelvic fins and the three by their anal glands. Like most lionfish hunters, Bowman has been stung repeatedly—at least thirty times, she told me. She wears gloves when she dives, but that makes little difference. “You can tell me you have a puncture-proof glove, blah blah blah,” she said. “But I’m gonna laugh at you.” In rare cases, the venom can cause paralysis in humans. Being stung, Bowman said, “feels like your bones and joints are pushing out—it’s a fucking misery.” She keeps four Vicodin in her dive bag.
Frequent diving strains the sinuses, and Bowman spends so much time underwater that she uses industrial quantities of Sudafed and bromelain, an enzyme derived from pineapples, to keep her air passages open; she often gets facial massages. She recently sent me an image of herself on a dive boat during last year’s Emerald Coast Open Lionfish Tournament—a gruelling two-day competition off Destin, in the Florida Panhandle, that is the largest such event in the world. In the photograph, her lower face is streaked by a bright-red smear of blood, the result of ruptured nasal capillaries. Nevertheless, she won the Open—her third victory.
At this year’s event, there was even more money at stake: almost a hundred thousand dollars in total. The team that caught the most lionfish was to receive a cash award of ten thousand dollars. A five-thousand-dollar prize would be given to whoever caught the largest lionfish. Lionfish are edible and marketable, so the winners would also make thousands of dollars selling their catch. More than a hundred and forty-five people had registered and were getting ready to dive as often as ten times a day, sometimes to depths of two hundred feet. Bowman and her team of three, competing under the name of Lionfish University—a nonprofit that was sponsoring them—were up against squads they’d competed with previously, sporting such names as the DeepWater Mafia and Alabama Jammin’. During the tournament, the contestants were expected to kill more than ten thousand lionfish. As Bowman put it to me, “This is the biggie.”
The most likely reason for the success that lionfish have had crossing over into Atlantic waters is precisely what makes them so harmful today: their insatiable appetite. The RateMyFishTank site warns about “the tendency of the lionfish to eat any fish small enough to fit in its mouth.” The upshot of this behavioral trait was expulsion from aquariums—and freedom. Steve Gittings, the science coördinator for the marine-sanctuaries program of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who leads the agency’s efforts to control lionfish, told me, “I’ve got to believe that people saw them eating all their other fish and just threw them in a canal.”
After the initial sighting off Dania Beach, there was a gap of some years before the presence of lionfish became palpable. They reached Bermuda by 2004, Cuba by 2007, and the Yucatán Peninsula by 2009. Their spread was helped by the fact that their eggs, encased in oily sacs, remain on the surface of water, allowing them to drift on ocean currents. Lionfish have been seen as far north as Rhode Island, though they do not last the winter there, and they recently made it to the Brazilian coast.
Since lionfish tend to congregate around any sunken object, it’s reasonable to guess that there are millions of them near submerged structures that no humans have ever visited. In 2014, Alex Fogg, the organizer of the Destin tournament, was a master’s student in biology at the University of Southern Mississippi, studying lionfish. In a GoPro video taken that year, Fogg, who is now the coastal-resource manager for Destin-Fort Walton Beach, is diving for lionfish southwest of Destin. He descends about a hundred feet to a small military aircraft that he has just discovered on the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. The area around the wings and the fuselage is carpeted by lionfish—they look as thick and sluggish as sea urchins. Fogg spears two hundred creatures, in two trips, before returning to his boat. They make no effort to elude him. Though the name lionfish suggests a fearsome quality, killing one is not reminiscent of Papa Hemingway in Africa. Lionfish go quietly. They do not scatter when their neighbors disappear. The best comparison might be stinkbugs on a wall, another invasive species that doesn’t know enough to flee. (Fogg has posted his video on YouTube, and it has been watched more than a million times.)…
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