Placencia Community Lionfish Hunt Success: "Team work makes the dream work."
I traveled to Placencia, Belize to meet with Lisa Carne from Fragments of Hope, one of the leading coral restoration organizations in the Caribbean. After hearing her name mentioned by a half-dozen other coral restoration experts around the world, I was excited to see the reef-building results of Lisa’s Staghorn, Elkhorn and Prolifera coral out-plantings (blog post forthcoming). Staghorn and Elkhorn coral, once the dominant reef-building corals of the Caribbean suffered over 95% die-off in response to disease outbreaks in the 1970s and 1980s. Since the first disease outbreaks, coral cover - the amount of the seafloor that is covered in coral - has gone down by over 70% throughout the region. There is a growing movement focused on coral restorations, and Fragments of Hope is one of the leaders.
Captain Harry Neal invited me to film underwater during Placencia’s 2nd Community Lionfish Hunt on September 7. Harry is very active in organizing events to benefit the community. As he said to me, “team work makes the dream work.” Since first learning about the exotic lionfish populations wreaking havoc in the Caribbean, I have been seeing more and more signs of mother nature thrown off-balance. Much like helping with coral restoration efforts, I hoped that by filming the Lionfish hunt, I inspire others to organize similar events across the region.
I was fortunate to arrive during off-season, and much of the beachside part of town was dominated by locals. I was staying at the north end of the beach and diving with Seahorse Divers at the south end, so I did a lot of walking to and from along Placencia’s original Main Street. Wide enough for two people to walk side-by-side, it was once in the Guinness Book of World Records as the narrowest street in the world. While a paved, car-friendly road one hundred feet inland has taken over as Placencia’s main artery, and I was a daily morning regular at Above Grounds coffee, the original street has the non-motorized, relaxed, community feel that kept me coming back for more.
While paradise was within reach inland and far off-shore, the beaches in Placencia, and throughout the Caribbean from Honduras to Florida, are currently inundated with brown-red Sargassum seaweed, which smells terrible as it rots, limits easy access to the ocean and is killing resident wildlife in the shallows. When I first arrived in Placencia I was unaware, but by the time I traveled to San Pedro a week later, I was requesting a room far away from an ocean view. The yearly Sargassum bloom, which only started arriving in the Caribbean in 2011, has become a growing challenge for Caribbean coastal residents. Most agree that climate change is warming waters and changing ocean currents and, with the addition of nitrogen-loading from agricultural runoff, is driving parts of the west Atlantic Ocean out of balance. Locals are worried about its effect on tourism and local ocean-based jobs, while scientists also point to the loss of marine life.
Native to the Pacific Ocean, Lionfish were accidentally introduced into the western Atlantic in the 1980s and 1990s. Since then they have rapidly expanded throughout the Atlantic Seaboard and Caribbean, from New York to Brazil. Specialized, voracious hunters, they eat small, young fish and are decimating native fish populations. To address this challenge, coastal communities are banding together to keep their regional Lionfish populations in check. I asked Harry, the main organizer of event, why such community hunts were important.
“Its really important because its an invasive species and none of the natural predators are used to hunting them. We have tried in a few different situations to get them [native predators] to adapt to it, so that later on they will start hunting them on their own, but that’s not a guarantee. The same food that these Lionfish are consuming are food sources for other reef creatures. The appetite they have is crazy for the ecosystem that they are living in. So it’s very important that we try to take out as many as possible, minimizing their reproduction level.”
According to Harry, Good Vybes’ Captain Shaun Young, and instructor Kirk Mayen, Lionfish do significant damage in their short, three-year lifespan. They conserve all of their energy for reproduction and feeding, lay 20,000 eggs every three days and eat six times their body weight in juvenile fish daily. A 2012 research paper found that Lionfish became the dominant predator (40% of total) in the Bahamas and corresponded with an average 65% biomass reduction of 42 Atlantic prey fish species within two years. While the challenges might seem insurmountable, Harry is already beginning to see the positive results of targeted efforts by the community and other spearfishing clubs to reduce the regional Lionfish population.
“The population is decreasing drastically,” said Harry. “I am happy. I am impressed that there is not the population that I expected to see in those areas.”
On Thursday September 6, three boats filled with 5-6 divers each spread out along Belize’s southern reefs to hunt for Lionfish. My group traveled on the Good Vybes with Captain Shaun Young at the helm for an hour to hunt in the Gladdens Spit and Silk Caye Marine Reserve. Known as “the elbow”, Gladden Spit is where the northern and southern ocean currents meet, is home to 25 reef fish species and a fish spawning hotspot. While out of season, Harry mentioned that we were going to be in a whale shark zone and, if we were lucky, I might see my first.
The five spear fishers on the Good Vybes collectively caught 136 Lionfish out of the total catch of 434 fish from the three boats. As Harry describes it, the community lionfish hunts are a win-win whether or not they catch a lot of Lionfish, because if they don’t catch many, that means they have already made an impact. Most of the fish fillets are donated to the local community center.
In the end, fortune smiled on our boat after the second dive: I saw my first Whale Shark (below), a young one that we found following behind a school of tuna feeding on sardines. Whale Sharks are the biggest fish in the world and it was impressive to see even a small one alongside the boat. I look forward to returning to Belize during the March-June high season to see them up close under the surface.