New Twist in the Invasive Lionfish Saga

I’ve posted previously about the lionfish invasion that is threatening coral reef and other marine ecosystems throughout the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, and Southern Atlantic Seaboard of the United States.

Much has been made of the spectacular invasive success of the two species of Indo-Pacific lionfish that have established themselves throughout the Wider Caribbean.  Not only are the invaders being found at population densities more than ten times those typical in their native range, but they also have been found to grow more rapidly, reaching sexual maturity more quickly, and growing to greater size than do their Indo-Pacific cousins.

Several studies have looked at the genetic make-up of invasive lionfish and have concluded that the populations found in the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean, and Southeastern seaboard of the United States are all closely related, stemming back to fewer than ten females. Continue reading

A Big Fish Story We Can Get Behind

Cool video from the Red Sea of a moray eel (Gymnothorax javanicus) preying on a lionfish (Pterois miles).

Morays are quick to chow down on lionfish carcasses in the Caribbean and will readily accept (or steal) lionfish off of a spear (although such feeding is a BAD idea as it causes them to associate divers with food).

Let’s hope they will begin to hunt lionfish o their own in the Caribbean as well.

Lionfish Removal and Awareness Day Festival

 

Photo credit: Erin Spencer

Photo credit: Erin Spencer

I’ve posted previously about the lionfish invasion that is threatening coral reef and other marine ecosystems throughout the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, and Southern Atlantic Seaboard of the United States. As I’ve noted in earlier posts, it is the general consensus of the scientific and conservation community that eradication of lionfish from the Atlantic is impossible. However, there is growing evidence that systematic removal efforts can be effective in controlling lionfish populations and in reversing their negative impact on reef health. The challenge faced by marine protection agencies and marine resource managers is how to undertake these removals on a regular and financially sustainable basis. I’m convinced that this challenge can best be met by an integrated approach involving coordinated action by public and private actors complemented by the creation of markets for lionfish products.

All of these elements were in evidence at the Lionfish Removal and Awareness Day festival in Pensacola, Florida which I attended last month. Organized by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), the two-day event included a lionfish derby (with more than 8,000 lionfish removed by volunteer divers), lectures about the invasion and the threat that it poses, lionfish cooking and tasting, and sale of lionfish products.

Notable among the sponsors of the event was Whole Foods, which had announced a few weeks earlier that it was going to begin selling lionfish at its stores in California and Florida. The move by whole foods was sparked by the decision late last year of Monterey Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program to list lionfish as a best choice under its sustainable seafood recommendations, citing the invasive nature of the species. As I had noted in a previous post, Seafood Watch had previously declined to list lionfish due to the absence of an established commercial fishery, but to their credit, the group responded to what they described as a “grassroots campaign” and revisited the issue. Moreover, since taking the decision to list lionfish, Seafood Watch has been active in raising awareness about the invasion and in promoting lionfish consumption. Continue reading

Lionfish Jewelry Update – Caribbean Gulf and Fisheries Institute Conference

I’ve posted previously about the emergence of lionfish jewelry as one of several market-based approaches to controlling the invasion of this non-native species which poses an unprecedented threat to marine ecosystems in the Western Atlantic.

Last month I had the opportunity to make a presentation on lionfish jewelry at a special workshop on lionfish management that was held during the annual conference of the Gulf and Caribbean Fisheries Institute, in Panama. The conference program also included a full-day lionfish research symposium and a lionfish research poster session, both of which gave me an opportunity to learn more about the science aspects of the lionfish invasion and some of the latest findings on lionfish biology and behavior and to meet some of the leading researchers on these subjects.

The lionfish management workshop, which was organized by the United Nations Environment Program’s Caribbean Regional Activity Center on Specially Protected Areas and Wildlife (SPAW-RC) and the International Coral Reef Initiative (ICRI), brought together marine scientists, managers of marine protected areas, fishermen, and representatives of international organizations to share experiences and lessons learned with respect to strategies for controlling the invasion. Continue reading

Natural Capital Valuation and Protection of Marine Megafauna – Update on Manta Ray Protection

In a post last year I pointed to the action by the Indonesian government to make its entire 6 million square kilometer exclusive economic zone a sanctuary for manta rays as an example of growing recognition by governments of the ecosystem service value of natural capital.

The threat to mantas through hunting was highlighted in a haunting new documentary, Racing Extinction, which debuted worldwide on Discovery Channel earlier this month. The film followed the efforts of photojournalist/ marine conservationist Shawn Heinrichs to document the manta hunts in Lamakera, in a remote region of Indonesia. Heinrich learned that the hunts have a long tradition in this area, but until recently the number of mantas taken each year was relatively small. It was only in the last decade that the traditional hunting was transformed into a large-scale commercial fishery, fueled by the demand for manta gill rakers as an ingredient in Chinese medicine.

When the first images of a giant manta lit up the screen, a hush fell over the stunned crowd…Even the most hardened of the manta hunters were transfixed by beauty of a world they had only witnessed from the other end of a harpoon shaft. I noticed a row of small children, their wide eyes soaking up the images on the screen. For these children, a seed was planted and a brilliant transformation was already taking place.  Continue reading

Belize Lionfish Jewelry – Update

 

Belize Lionfish Workshop participants with their certificates

Belize Lionfish Workshop participants with their certificates

I’ve posted previously about the emergence of lionfish jewelry as one of several market-based approaches to controlling the invasion of this non-native species which poses an unprecedented threat to marine ecosystems in the Western Atlantic.

Last month, for the third year in a row, I spent two weeks in Belize where I had a chance to get an update on how the market is developing.  I started my visit in Placencia, which is home to Kaj Assales, the most successful of the lionfish jewelry artists in the country, with her own jewelry line which she sells through her boutique as well as online.  It was my first chance to visit her shop and to see some of her new designs.

Next I spent a week in the Sapodilla Cayes with ReefCI, the NPO that I first collaborated with to help jump-start the lionfish jewelry market in the country.  This gave me a chance to practice my lionfish spearing skills, as the ReefCI team and visiting volunteers continue to remove several hundred lionfish per week dissecting a sample of 30-40 of these for stomach content. Data on size, sex, and stomach content is provided to the Belize Fisheries Department and has been a valuable input to its national lionfish control strategy.  Coincidently, ReefCI’s lionfish control program was profiled in the August issue of United Airlines magazine; not only a nice recognition of the group’s efforts, but also a great boost for raising awareness about the lionfish invasion. Continue reading

Flower Garden Banks Lionfish Invitational

I have posted previously about the lionfish invasion and the threat that it poses to marine ecosystems in the Western Atlantic. In an earlier post, I noted that there is increasing evidence that regular removals can be effective in controlling lionfish infestation, allowing native fish populations to recover. Removals are being undertaken via organized efforts such “lionfish derbies” and other forms of sanctioned fishing tournaments as well as via market approaches that create commercial incentives to harvest the fish.

While marine protection agencies are generally supportive of these efforts and are indeed engaging in removals themselves, they lack the data and evidence needed to make informed decisions about the optimal mix of approaches and the level of effort and resources needed to effectively control the invasion. I recently had the opportunity to participate in a research expedition aimed at helping to address this gap. I was fortunate enough to be selected to join 29 other volunteer citizen scientists, professional/semi-professional spear fishers, and marine scientists for a fish survey and lionfish culling effort in the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary. Situated about 100 miles off the coast of Texas, the sanctuary is home to a unique ecosystem with almost 300 species of fish, 21 species of coral, and several other invertebrate species. Lionfish are being observed with increasing frequency within the sanctuary, a cause for concern by the sanctuary’s managers. They have previously undertaken periodic culling of lionfish, but the recent effort was the first time that removals were undertaken in a systematic fashion. Continue reading

Whale Shark Encounter

In celebration of International Whale Shark Day, which is August 30…

I’ve posted previously about ecotourism ventures focused on iconic marine species such as sharks, manta rays, and sea turtles and how such ventures can be linked to protection of the species involved. From a natural capital valuation standpoint, the link is based on the recognition that the revenue generated from wildlife tourism associated with the animals far exceeds the revenue that would be earned from their capture for meat and/or body parts.  In a nutshell – they are worth more alive than dead!

One species that has been the focus of wildlife tourism in various parts of the world is the whale shark. The largest fish in the sea, whale sharks grow up to 40 feet in length and more than 45,000 pounds in weight.  Continue reading

Support Needed for Lionfish Jewelry Workshop

© Seavenger’s Trident Super Dive Store

For the past several years, I have been involved in helping to develop markets for lionfish jewelry as a way of addressing the threat posed by this invasive species, which is severely compromising the health of coral reefs throughout the Caribbean by eating reef-dwelling fish. Belize is home to the second largest barrier reef in the region, and its lobster and conch fisheries could really benefit from a break of overexploitation, so encouraging lionfish fishing in any way possible will promote reef recovery.

My last post, in fact, was about my trip to northern Belize last summer, when I collaborated with two local NGOs in Belize to train women from a coastal community on how to create lionfish jewelry. This August, I will again be joining one of these groups – Blue Ventures, for a lionfish jewelry workshop for women from other areas. As you can see from the pictures here and in my previous posts, lionfish fins, tails, and spines are beautiful; they’re also relatively low-cost to transform into jewelry. These parts of lionfish were previously discarded, but when kept and transormed into jewelry the value of landed lionfish catch increases by up to 40%, creating additional incentives for fishers to target and remove lionfish Continue reading

Fighting Invasive Lionfish – Update

I’ve posted previously about the lionfish invasion that is threatening coral reef and other marine ecosystems throughout the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, and Southern Atlantic Seaboard of the United States. Availability and dissemination of information about the invasion was recently given a big boost through launch of the Invasive Lionfish Web Portal The portal is a collaborative effort of a number of partners, led by the Gulf and Caribbean Fisheries Institute. It is a great resource, providing links to a range of information about the invasion, including journal articles, videos, photos, recipes, a Twitter feed, etc..

Another recent development has been the release of a draft United States National Invasive Lionfish Prevention and Management Plan. Developed by the U.S. Government’s Aquatic Nuisance Species Task Force, the plan is intended to help coordinate the actions of the various government agencies and other stakeholders involved in dealing with the invasion. While such a plan is long overdue, and in that sense is welcome, I’m quite disappointed that the plan largely ignores, and indeed implicitly discourages, an important element of an effective strategy for addressing the invasion – namely the use of market-based approaches.

As I’ve indicated in my previous posts, the Atlantic lionfish invasion is a unique problem that requires innovative solutions. Continue reading

Citizen Science in Belize – Update on Lionfish Jewelry: Part 2

Assorted lionfish jewelry from Palovi Baezar, Punta Gorda, Belize

Assorted lionfish jewelry from Palovi Baezar, Punta Gorda, Belize

In Part 1 of this post I wrote about my recent visit to Belize to help with further development of the nascent  market for lionfish jewelry; one of several market-based approaches to addressing the threat to Southwest Atlantic marine ecosystems posed by the invasion of this non-native species. I noted that the market is most advanced in the area around Punta Gorda, in Southern Belize, in large measure due to the support provided by ReefCI which has provided training on jewelry making to a group of local women and is supplying them with lionfish spines, fins, and tails as well as marketing assistance.

Lionfish spines, fins, and tails ready for jewelry

Lionfish spines, fins, and tails ready for jewelry

While ReefCI’s involvement has been instrumental in getting things started, further development and expansion of the market will require engagement with artisans and women’s groups in other parts of the country, particularly areas closer to major tourist markets. Interventions are also needed to develop a reliable and sustainable supply chain for lionfish jewelry production and sales. I was pleased to hear from one of the jewelry makers in Punta Gorda that a local fisherman had approached her about selling lionfish tails. This was music to my ears, as one of the motivations behind the lionfish jewelry idea has been to up return to fishers in order to create added commercial incentive for them to hunt lionfish (the fish cannot be caught using conventional fishing methods such as hook and line or nets, but must instead be speared or hand-netted by diving). Continue reading

Citizen Science in Belize – Update on Lionfish Jewelry: Part 1

Freshly dried lionfish fins and tails. Photo: Polly Alford, ReefCI

I’ve written in previous posts about the initiative to develop a market for lionfish jewelry as one of a number of commercially sustainable approaches to fighting this invasive species that is threatening marine ecosystems throughout the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Southern Atlantic seaboard of the United States. In my last post, I mentioned that the idea is beginning to take off in Belize.  I was able to observe this first-hand last month, spending two and a half weeks in the country.  During my stay I had the opportunity to meet local artists who are making lionfish jewelry and to participate in several workshops to share techniques and designs.  Continue reading

Fiji Shark Dive

Photo Credit: Martin Graf, Sharkdiver.com

Photo Credit: Martin Graf,  Sharkdiver.com

In an earlier post I wrote about how more and more countries are waking up to the benefits of preserving natural capital, in recognition of the economic value that can be derived through ecotourism. I noted, in particular, the value that can be generated through ecotourism ventures focused on iconic species such as sharks, manta rays, and sea turtles. I cited a number of studies and calculations that demonstrate that the ecotourism value of these animals far outweighs their one-time economic value if harvested for food or body parts.

Earlier this week, I had an opportunity to experience one such venture first hand, via the famous Fiji Shark Dive. Over the course of two dives I was treated to the spectacle of 40+ Bull Sharks and dozens of Blacktip and White Tip Reef Sharks, up close and personal!  What an amazing experience to see these magnificent animals – some upwards of 8 feet long –swimming only inches away.  Click here for a video (check out the background music!) courtesy of Martin Graf, one of the pioneers of the Shark Diving industry, who just happened to be in Fiji this week and was along on my dives. Continue reading

Controlling Invasive Lionfish – Update on Market Solutions: Part 2/2 — Lionfish Art

spines and tails-photo3

Array of dried lionfish spines and tails -ready for jewelry use Credit: ReefCI

In Part 1 of this post regarding market-based solutions to fighting the lionfish invasion that is threatening coral reef and other marine ecosystems throughout the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, and Southern Atlantic Seaboard of the United States, I wrote about the challenge of developing commercially sustainable strategies for undertaking the systematic removals that are needed to keep lionfish populations under control. I discussed the need to develop a series of vertical markets, pointing to promotion of lionfish as a seafood choice as the most obvious of these. Capture of juvenile lionfish for the aquarium trade as another.  A third market, and one in which I’m personally involved, is use of lionfish spines and tails for jewelry and other decorative items.  Continue reading

Controlling Invasive Lionfish – Update on Market Solutions: Part 1/2

 

I’ve posted previously about the lionfish invasion that is threatening coral reef and other marine ecosystems throughout the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, and Southern Atlantic Seaboard of the United States. As I noted in earlier posts, it is the general consensus of the scientific and conservation community that eradication of lionfish from the Atlantic is impossible. There have been some anecdotal reports that native predators such as groupers and snapper are beginning to recognize lionfish as prey, but there is no systematic evidence, as of yet, of widespread predation. So the conclusion remains that human intervention is the only way to keep lionfish populations in check. The good news is that there is growing evidence that systematic removal efforts can indeed be effective in controlling lionfish populations and in reversing their negative impact on reef health. A study published earlier this year found that populations of snapper and grouper rebound by 50-70 percent once lionfish are removed. And it isn’t necessary to remove 100 percent of lionfish for recovery of native fish populations to take place; the study found that reduction of lionfish populations by as little as 75 percent will do the trick. This is important, given difficulties in reaching lionfish at depths beyond the limits of divers.  Also, removal efforts may become more difficult over time, as lionfish on reefs where regular culling takes place begin to wise up and hide from divers (click here for a cute poetic rendition of findings of a study on this behavioral adaptation).

Thus the challenge is to find a sustainable basis on which to undertake the systematic removals that are needed to keep lionfish populations under control. Continue reading

Natural Capital Valuation and Protection of Marine Megafauna

Photo © Fabrice Jaine

I’ve noticed a number of positive and interesting developments as of late in the area of marine species protection, pointing to an increasing recognition, by policymakers, of the value of natural capital and associated ecosystem services, particularly the value arising from ecotourism.

In February of this year, the Government of Indonesia granted full protection to manta rays within its nearly 6 million square kilometer exclusive economic zone (EEZ), making it the world’s largest sanctuary for manta rays. This reverses the trend of the past three decades wherein Indonesia has had the dubious distinction of being home to the world’s largest fishery for sharks and rays. Why the reversal? It seem that studies showing that the ecotourism value of a manta ray is an estimated $1 million over its lifetime, as compared to the onetime value of several hundred dollars for its gill rakers and meat played a key role in persuading policymakers to take action to protect the iconic species.

A few weeks later, the President of Palau announced that the country’s entire 200 nautical mile EEZ will be declared a marine sanctuary and closed to commercial fishing and seabed mining.  This follows a move a few years earlier to declare Palau a shark sanctuary. In explaining the reasoning behind the moves Palau’s president noted that a dead shark is worth several hundred dollars, whereas a live shark is worth $1.9 million in tourism during its life span, and that his country will promote scuba diving, snorkelling and ecotourism as an alternative income to commercial fishing. Continue reading

Citizen Science in Belize – Update – If You Can’t Beat’em, Wear’em

Lionfish spine earrings crafted by Palovi Baezar, Punta Gorda, Belize. Credit: Polly Alford, ReefCI

In earlier posts about my volunteer experience in Belize with ReefCI, I talked about the lionfish invasion that is threatening coral reef and other marine ecosystems throughout the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, and Southern Atlantic Seaboard of the United States, and noted that, at least for the foreseeable future, human intervention, particularly the establishment of a commercial fishery for the species, appears to be the only solution to keep the invasion under control.

I mentioned the idea of lionfish jewelry as a possible way of increasing the economic return to fisherfolk who may otherwise be reluctant to go after lionfish given the difficulty of catching them (the fish must be harvested by spearing or hand netting rather than through traditional methods such as lines or nets). I’ve been pleased to learn that at least one artisan in Belize has picked up on the idea, using some of the lionfish spines that I collected while I was there. She has already crafted some beautiful earrings (see photo above) and is working on other jewelry items as well as decorative mirrors. Elsewhere, jewelry crafted from lionfish tails and fins is being sold online, and through a retail outlet in Curaçao.  Continue reading

Citizen Science in Belize: Part 2/2 – If You Can’t Beat’em, Eat’em

Photo by Alexander Vasenin

Lionfish sushi – Photo © World Lionfish Hunters Association (click on photo to visit their website)

In Part 1 of this post I talked about the lionfish invasion that is threatening coral reef and other marine ecosystems throughout the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, and Southern Atlantic Seaboard of the United States.  Scientists, environmental groups and governments that are studying the problem have all come to the conclusion that it is probably impossible to eradicate lionfish in the Atlantic – they are here to stay. Continue reading

Citizen Science in Belize: Part 1/2

Photo © ReefCI

Photo © ReefCI

It might seem strange to accompany a posting about marine conservation with a photo of a fish on a spear, but in this case, it is entirely warranted.

I recently returned from the Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve in Southern Belize, where I spent two weeks working as a volunteer with ReefCI, a NGO dedicated to coral reef ecosystem conservation. Located 30 miles off the coast of Belize on the southern tip of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef (the second largest in the world, after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef), the Sapodilla Cayes constitute a unique ecosystem.

Along with other volunteers, I assisted the ReefCI marine biologist with population surveys of conch, lobster, and commercial fish species, as well as coral reef health checks. At least one, and sometimes two surveys were carried out each day. The data collected is provided to the Belize Fisheries Department as well as to other cooperating NGOs.

Now about that fish on a spear. One of ReefCI’s projects is lionfish control. Spears Continue reading