Fishing with High Stakes: Civilians Take on Invasive Lionfish

By Emily Schutz

Lionfish

South Florida fisherman Philip Gruss says he feels a personal and moral obligation to kill invasive lionfish when he sees them. “Anytime I see one snorkeling or diving in the Bahamas I kill it, but you have to be careful about it.” Gruss has been warned about the large venomous spikes on the lionfish back. “They will sting you even if they are dead because they have spines on them that can puncture you and it hurts a lot,” he informed me. Now I, too, have been forewarned. More importantly though, Gruss wants to ensure that there will be wildlife left for his grandchildren to enjoy, because that wildlife was taken from him. “I grew up on the Chesapeake Bay,” he told me,  “and on the water as a very young kid, so I really love it and I would never want…” He paused,  “I’ve seen where I grew up, this beautiful, magnificent place, just get to a point where you aren’t even allowed to go in it anymore.” He means the Bay. “It was so polluted. And it really broke my heart to see it as a young adult because I spent most of my childhood in it, you know.” Although in the case of Chesapeake Bay, pollution was to blame, Gruss seems to believe that lionfish are a similarly damaging threat to the future of our ecosystems, and apparently that is a shared belief.

For Florida residents, it probably comes as no surprise that the state is filled with a plethora of invasive species, considering the prevalence of what we affectionately refer to as curly tailed lizards and fire ants. Florida has it all. But how can we forget, of course, the lionfish that have been taking over the local ecosystems off the shores of the sunshine state for the past thirty years, as of 2021. With its striped pattern and venomous spikes, this invasive fish is ruling over our reefs. In a February 2021 phone interview, Brittany Ligouri, a south Florida wildlife veterinarian, told me “These animals have the ability to go so unchecked and reproduce to mass numbers.”

Although they are originally from the South Pacific and Indian Oceans, they have been appearing in local waters over the last thirty years, likely due to citizens releasing their own captive lionfish into the nearby saltwater. Ligouri informed me that even “scientists are not sure what predators they have in their native range but speculate that it could be grouper sharks or eels.” Due to their venomous spikes, no local marine life are willing to consume them, which has made controlling the population difficult. In 2018, we saw a bounty placed on lionfish by The Sunshine State’s Wildlife Commission for the first time as part of their Lionfish Challenge. The reward was up to $5000, depending on the mass of the lionfish caught. In 2021, the challenge is running from May 21 through Labor Day, September 6. This year’s prize is entry into a raffle, but nonetheless the challenge is still occurring. With such high reward for a simple fish, it left me to wonder how bad this issue is and how exactly is it being handled. To my surprise, there is a significant push from Floridians and even those living out of state to participate in lowering the lionfish population.

“Everybody does their part,” Gruss assured me. For some, all they can do to help is kill the lionfish that they find. It is Gruss’s belief that we must start doing our part to take care of the planet in any way that we can. He broke it down for me by stating “This is our planet and we’ve been taking it for granted for a long time now. It’s time to start taking care of it. It’s kind of like your parents. Your parents raised you and they take care of you. It comes a time when they get old, and they need to be taken care of. That’s what the earth is like.”

Gruss is not alone in his efforts to lower the lionfish population. There are groups dedicated to killing lionfish, whether they are fishing or snorkeling. Gruss also informed me of lion fishing tournaments and derbies, entirely dedicated to catching and killing these fish, which are now happening in the Bahamas and Keys, Broward and Dade counties, and even further North. One tournament in particular is held by an organization called Discovery Diving. Their tournament entitled “If you Can’t Beat ’em, Eat ’em” takes place in North Carolina each year and offers prizes to winners. Groups such as Lionfishdivers.com and Lionfish Hunters of Florida encourage the catching and killing of lionfish in North America. Lionfish Hunters of Florida provides a description of their group: “We are here to unleash mayhem on the invasive LIONFISH!!! Kill them all!!! Plus, they are pretty tasty!” They share images of their catches and even recipes that they use for preparing their lionfish to be eaten, and rather enthusiastically I might add. Luckily for lionfish hunters in the United States, that joy cannot be dulled by a certification requirement, as catching lionfish does not require a license of any kind. The Caribbean does, however. For those who would like to catch lionfish there, one must take a course and become certified. In Florida, as well as the rest of the east coast, it is relatively easy to start catching and killing lionfish by diving or fishing in the salty coastal waters.

As a wildlife veterinarian, Brittany Ligouri has extensive knowledge on invasive species and particularly lionfish. According to her these fish are especially harmful for several reasons.

“They eat herbivorous fish and studies have shown that they can reduce a native fish population by up to 79%. So, they have a huge ability to outcompete native wildlife which in turn puts the ecosystem unbalanced.”

Ligouri is correct in this statistic. In a 2008 study by Oregon State University, it was found that lionfish do reduce native fish populations by around 79% and that study has been backed up by various other sources since then. Ligouri continues “They also put significant stress on coral reefs many of which are already struggling due to climate change and ocean acidification. The herbivorous fish are responsible for coordinating the algae off of the coral reefs. If this goes unchecked algae can quickly take over the coral reefs causing more stress and making the reef unable to cope with the algae overgrowth.” Ligouri didn’t stop there. According to her research

“lionfish have not reached their peak yet in the Gulf of Mexico,” this means that things will get worse for the local ecosystems before it gets better. Even more frightening is the new research coming out about lionfish and their ability to survive in brackish and freshwater. “This means that mangrove habitats and other estuaries may be at a risk of invasion as well,” says Ligouri. This discovery came from a twelve-year-old girl by the name of Lauren Arrington in 2014. She spotted lionfish in the Everglades, which inspired her science fair project for school. Through the project she was able to confirm that lionfish can survive in freshwater and has since been credited in many scientific journals. Soon enough, though, the local groups will be forced to take their lionfish hunting to the brackish waters of the Everglades.

Invasive Cuisine

In efforts to inspire more people to hunt and consume some have written cookbooks listing Lionfish recipes. These include books such as The Lionfish Cookbook: The Caribbean’s New Delicacy by Lad Akins and Tricia Ferguson, Green Fig and Lionfish by Allen Susser, and Cook Lionfish by Polly Alford and Claire Wood. According to Gruss and the Floridian and Bahamian lionfish-killing groups, Lionfish are delicious, so it’s no wonder many are actually excited to eat them. Besides cookbooks, you can find many lionfish recipes free online, such as Natalie Rubin’s Lionfish Florentine, making it easy to learn about cooking with lionfish.

In addition to civilian efforts to cook their own Lionfish, there are plenty of restaurants that serve Lionfish from Florida to New York and beyond. Setting our sites further south, the fish has become a part of Caribbean culture, ingraining itself into their recipes. New York City Caribbean restaurant, Norman’s Cay, purchases Lionfish from various fishermen and women in the Caribbean and Florida to then serve in their restaurant. The restaurant says that their hope is to raise awareness for the issue by including this invasive species on their menu.

Roger J. Muller Jr. is no stranger to cooking with and eating Lionfish. He is the creator of Lionfishdivers.com and might be among the most passionate about hunting Lionfish of anyone I’ve spoken to. Muller owns an insurance business in New Jersey where he resides but has a degree in environmental science which is a large reason why he cares so deeply about reducing the Lionfish population.

The list of places that he has traveled to hunt Lionfish is quite extensive. Considering his involvement in the Lionfish hunting community and the knowledge that he has accumulated through his experience and travels, it’s no wonder that the governor of Aruba invited him to meet and share his knowledge about the invasive species. He recently uploaded a YouTube video of his catches in Aruba where he speared 20 Lionfish in one dive. Through actively posting on YouTube, regularly updating his website and Facebook page he has fostered a community that he is deeply proud of. So much of what Phil Gruss informed me of within the community, is spot on with Muller’s work in eradicating Lionfish from North and South America. He has attended events such as Emerald Coast Lionfish Tournament and witnessed incredibly large numbers of Lionfish being caught. As addressed above, Muller has also cooked with Lionfish on many occasions even uploading the process on his YouTube channel for many viewers to enjoy and learn from. With so much content being posted by Muller frequently I had to ask, “What was the inspiration behind this internet presence?” He replied, “I had so many videos from my time hunting Lionfish. I decided to create LionfishDivers.com, an education website. I’m not profiting from it. I did it as an educational website.” Educating the public on Lionfish and inspiring others to do what he has done has been Muller’s goal throughout his journey. He describes it as “giv[ing] something back to the environment.”

The Reality of the Situation

Despite the work of fishermen, restaurants and marine organizations, scientists believe that realistically there isn’t much that can be done to stop the growth of the invasive Lionfish population. “NOAA researchers have concluded that invasive Lionfish populations will continue to grow and cannot be eliminated using conventional methods,” states the National Ocean Service (2016). The damage that has been done up to this point was 25 years in the making. It all began with the release of Lionfish from private aquariums, researchers suspect. Releasing exotic pets into the wild is a notorious way to start an invasive species population. Scientists from the National Ocean Service say, “Marine invaders are nearly impossible to eradicate once established.” So, what’s the point of the Lionfish hunting community’s work if they can’t fix the problem?

A study by Andrew B. Barbour of The University of Florida and the rest of his team reports that “a minimum of 35% to 65% of total lionfish need to be captured to make a dent in the population.” That’s a lot of lionfish. Rather than wiping the entire lionfish population out, fisherman are delaying the inevitable, or attempting to. “Control buys time for the possibility of new technology and scientific developments to aid in larger-scale techniques for control,” the study reports. Private citizens are assumed to have caused this issue and now private citizens are attempting to solve it. Individuals cannot make a large change on their own. Scientists have to work to find a solution.  

In order to better understand how scientists are approaching this issue I spoke to Dr. Stallings of The University of South Florida, about the technology that is currently in development.

“There are numerous types of traps that have been developed. I know there’s been varying amounts of success with them. There’s a group that has developed a really nice trap that seems to work well, and it seems to have low levels of bycatch.” Bycatch is when fish and other creatures that are not the target are caught accidentally. “That’s something that we have to be really careful with, making sure that we catch only what we’re trying to catch,” he said.

Much of the technology that is in place currently is meant to be used in conjunction with divers and hunters. Scientists and marine organizations encourage and hope that civilians hunt lionfish. The technology is just an addition to that. Traps are planted in locations that divers cannot reach but are not fully functioning yet. Many designs are in a field-testing stage and are still being tweaked according to Dominic Andradi-Brown in a 2019 article that he wrote for the World Wildlife Fund. Initially lionfish were bycatch in lobster traps. Scientists then realized that they could catch lionfish through similar traps which they would develop specifically for that purpose. As Andradi-Brown puts it “The purpose of trap refinement has been to maximize the number of lionfish caught while minimizing bycatch of other species.” He continues on to say, “For example, by modifying lobster traps with escape gaps, it was possible to reduce bycatch in the Bermuda traps from an average of 13 per trap to <1 per trap.” This is a significant improvement that will reduce harm to other sea life that were not intended to be caught. As time has passed and technology has improved scientist have developed specific designs, including “domes and purse traps that function as fish aggregating devices to attract lionfish in large numbers.”

Andradi-Brown explained that in their trials which took place in Pensacola Florida, “76% and 90% of traps contained lionfish after deployment for 18 and 56 days, respectively.” Just as Dr. Stallings suggested, there is great potential for the development of these traps. The study states “Trapping holds great promise as a low-cost method to allow Lionfish removal from depths below diver limits.” That’s not all of it though. Computer-vision technology and underwater robotics are currently in the testing process, and although this technology is not available quite yet, there are trials which “stun and then collect Lionfish using electric shocks.” High tech developments like these have the potential to change the way that lionfish are caught, hopefully for the better.

Until such technologies are in widespread use, civilians will continue to catch lionfish on their own. Marine life conservation organization REEF encourages citizens to do their part to protect native species of fish as best they can. REEF stands for Reef Environmental Education Foundation and their mission is to “protect biodiversity and ocean life by actively engaging and inspiring the public through citizen science, education, and partnerships with the scientific community.” The organization has a variety of programs, but one in particular relates to lionfish, that being the Invasive Species Program. Through the program they offer Lionfish Collecting and Handling Workshops, Lionfish Jewelry Workshops, and Lionfish Derbies, where fishermen compete to catch the most or largest lionfish. As previously mentioned, tournaments and derbies are one of the main ways that marine organizations encourage the catching of lionfish, but for REEF, these derbies are particularly successful. Since 2009 the organization has removed 28,050 lionfish through their derbies, and they grow in participation each and every year.

I had the opportunity to speak with REEF’s Invasive Species Program Coordinator, Dr. Alli Candelmo, about the work that the organization is doing. This, past year (2020), she says they held their most successful derby yet. “We’ve actually had a record number of participants and a record number of fish caught, so that’s great to see. The community is still involved in this effort ten years later or more.” REEF hopes to continue to see high levels of participation and one of the ways they are attempting to foster such participation is by turning these derbies into multifaceted festivals. “We’ve had both culinary competitions and multiple chefs come in from different restaurants in the area. They put in their best dish and then people pay a ticket to taste them and vote on them, which is usually a big success.” Once the dishes are done, any extra lionfish or food is donated to local restaurants and grocery stores to ensure that nothing is wasted. By serving lionfish to derby participants, other guests, and grocery shoppers/restaurant goers, Dr. Candelmo says they want to encourage people to order lionfish when they see it on the menu at a restaurant.

In the past, scientists have doubted the potential that derbies and civilian efforts can have in reducing the invasive lionfish population. In a 2018 article from Sun Sentinel, University of Florida scientist Michael Allen was described as being initially skeptical about the derbies’ success. He was quoted as saying “I was of the opinion that derbies aren’t a great use of resources,” but his opinion did change slightly. He continued, “… derbies are probably not going to reduce lionfish in, for example, the Gulf of Mexico. But I do think that the recent work that paper showed that if focused in areas that are deemed critical habitat, important areas, and if the derbies are done regularly with regular removal, you can suppress lionfish abundances substantially.” This slight change of heart stems from a 2017 study by Dr. Stephanie J. Green and her team in peer-reviewed journal, Conservation Letters. The study claimed that REEF’s and other derbies helped to reduce the population of lionfish in Key Largo and the Bahamas by 52 percent over the span of three years. This study took place within an area of 74 square miles in which derbies were held. Of course, this does not necessarily mean that derbies are going to significantly alter the lionfish population in the grand scheme of things, and especially not areas where derbies don’t happen, but there is still hope for the future of marine ecosystems. In my interview with Dr. Stallings, he informed me of a 2017 study that he oversaw, which showed that lionfish are on the decline in the Bahamas. This could be for a variety of reasons, such as environmental factors, but nonetheless, it’s good news. Science is beginning to point towards a future, where we don’t have to worry about losing native species, as we once feared.

In spite of the lionfish invasion here in Florida and elsewhere, scientists are finding ways to curb their takeover, and have even found that things are not as bad as they used to be. Fishermen, divers and marine organizations are working hard to remove lionfish from native waters. Just as fisherman Phillip Gruss told me, “Everyone does their part.” Everything from catching lionfish to cooking them or even making jewelry with them is welcomed and encouraged by the community. On the surface, the efforts may seem in vain, but through recent studies, we can see that they are meaningful, not only to restoring ecosystems, but to lionfish hunters as well. It’s clear that they want to do good for the coastal waters that they enjoy, for the environment’s sake,  their sake, and as Phillip Gruss so heartfeltly put, for the sake of our children and grandchildren for years to come.

Lionfish

Emily SchutzEmily Schutz is a recent graduate of Florida State University. There she studied both English (with a specialization in editing, writing, and media) and Communications Media Studies. She starts at Columbia University in the fall, where she will be enrolled in the M.S. in Journalism program. Through Emily’s work as a journalist, she has researched and written about a variety of topics. Some of her favorites include marine biology and environmental conservation. In the future, she hopes to continue writing about such topics and creating greater awareness about the issues that surround us daily.

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