Off the Yucatán Coast are some of the world’s most beautiful denizens of the deep, the colorfully “maned” lionfish. Its showy fans of brilliantly hued spines and quiet, fearless demeanor make it prized by collectors and beloved by divers, who once had to swim the Indian Ocean to enjoy resplendent specimens in the wild.
Since 1992, however, when a few of these gorgeous creatures were inadvertently released into the Atlantic (perhaps when Hurricane Andrew destroyed a Florida aquarium) we’ve been able to see them right here in the Americas. Without natural enemies capable of getting past their fabulous, venomous spine, populations are growing off the Cancún coast, Isla Mujeres, along the Riviera Maya, and in Cozumel’s Parque Nacional Arrecifes, about an hour from Cancún.
It’s a serious problem—so much so that the U.S. Geological Survey is tracking their expansion, while other scientists have listed the lionfish as one of the top 15 threats to biodiversity worldwide. Though lovely, these are fast-breeding top predators that consume native snapper, grouper, and parrotfish, which keep the reefs healthy.
” On the one hand you have a transplanted species…they are voracious predators and prey particularly often on smaller and juvenile species,” explains Scuba Tony, a local dive instructor, of Cozumel’s conundrum over how to cope. “On the other hand, you have a fish that is very attractive, highly photogenic and likes to stay in the same place all the time. As a scuba diver what more could you ask for?”
In 2009, however, the national marine park declared a “lionfish alert,” saying that despite their beauty, they were “altering the diversity of an area that has taken hundreds of thousands of years to adapt and evolve. They are eating their way through the Atlantic reefs, causing the most devastating marine invasion in history.”
The solution? There is, actually, one local predator capable of capturing and consuming the poisonous fish—and we actually find it delicious. Various conservation groups, the NOAA, and many restaurateurs agree that we should put our famously voracious eating habits, which have depleted stocks of lobster, shrimp, snapper and other native Caribbean fish, to good use. “It’s taking over ecosystems from Trinidad and Tobago all the way up to Maine,” says Washington chef and Blue Ocean Institute fellow Barton Seaver Seaver said. “Our solution is just to eat it.”
Hence, this October 19-23 sets off Cozumel’s first Lionfish Hunting Safari and Gastronomic Show, sponsored by the Cozumel City Council, Señor Frogs, Carlos & Charlie’s Bar and Grille, and other island entities. Local operators will train divers to use ELF (Eradication Lion Fish) capture tools, for use over three days of serious diving. Special hotel and restaurant rates will welcome hunters to their Cozumel expedition.
Experienced scuba divers are now being encouraged to capture lionfish at parks like the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, which doles out spearfishing licenses to qualified divers, and lionfish rodeos and tournaments are springing up across the Caribbean. These are less formal, ending with beach bonfire barbecue after a long day of lionfishing.
However, keep in mind that the spectacular, venemous array of up to 18 needle-like dorsal fins, while rarely fatal to humans, is very painful and can cause nausea and breathing difficulties. So, in Mexico, unless you’ve joined an official lionfishing event, divers are encouraged to report any sightings to both their dive master and REEF, which keeps tabs on such things. Skilled spear operators can take it from there.