Sunday, March 5, 2017

A Proposal to Help Control Lionfish on Bonaire, Netherlands Antilles

Lionfish, an insidious, voracious, invasive species that is decimating reef fish populations throughout the Caribbean and along the Gulf of Mexico and western Atlantic coasts.  Photo by

Shortly after Hurricane Andrew roared ashore near Miami in late August 1992, some misinformed individual decided to release his or her collection of Lionfish into the waters of the Atlantic Ocean (the guesstimate is that 8 individuals were released).  Native to waters of the Southwest Pacific and Indian Oceans, the Lionfish found themselves in an environment where they had no natural predators.  Add to that their possession of highly venomous spines on at least three parts of their bodies, the Lionfish were suddenly thrust into an aquatic nirvana where their population and range exploded.  

Lionfish are native to the areas shown in green and blue on this map; they have invaded the areas shown in red - all since 1992 and all because someone released eight of them near Miami!

Lionfish reproduce like crazy; females produce up to 30,000 eggs each month and young females begin producing eggs at 2 months of age!  On top of their fecundity that would put a Mormon to shame, they are voracious eaters, consuming anything and everything that they can fit in their mouths.  In some places they are decimating reef fish populations that so many SCUBA divers enjoy while pursuing their sport

Absent any natural predators in Atlantic/Gulf/Caribbean waters the only possible way of controlling their burgeoning populations is through hunting/spearing them.  All a diver needs is a spear and a Zookeeper containment tube to hold the fish (and protect the diver from the venomous spines) after each fish is speared.

A spear and a Zookeeper are all that you need to help control this insidious predator.  Just make sure you don't spear your carpet when you are practicing with the spear on dry land :)

Because of the serious threat posed by Lionfish, the Professional Association of Dive Instructors (PADI) recently developed and implemented a Lionfish Hunter certification program that is offered through some PADI dive centers.  During a recent dive trip to Bonaire, Cathy Hayslett and I successfully completed the PADI Lionfish Hunter course and now, like Secret Agent James Bond, we are licensed to kill.

We completed the course at Toucan Diving Bonaire located at the Plaza Resort Bonaire which, in our estimation, are the best place to stay and the best dive shop to dive with on the island.  Hagen Wegener, a PADI Instructor (a Brit who is married to a fellow Wisconsin Badger!) did a masterful job of teaching us the proper way to hunt, kill, and contain Lionfish.  During our two certification dives with Hagen we eliminated two Lionfish from the reefs of Bonaire and the following day killed 10 more.

Look for these signs while on Bonaire - stay at the Plaza Resort Bonaire and dive with Toucan Diving Bonaire - and you will be assured of a fantastic time on the island.

However, because of local regulations, that was the end of our Lionfish hunting during our stay. Those local regulations require that visitors be accompanied by a local, licensed Lionfish hunter otherwise it is illegal for us to hunt and help remove Lionfish - even though we are trained in the proper way to remove them.  Curiously visitors on nearby Curacao, just 47 miles west of Bonaire and a fellow part of the Netherlands Antilles,  are not only allowed but encouraged to hunt and kill Lionfish and do so on their own.  Yet, on Bonaire the restriction remains in place.

This was particularly frustrating while diving after our training when we were with divemasters who were not licensed to kill Lionfish.  We saw many Lionfish on subsequent dives, usually out in the open, seemingly begging us to hunt them.  However because of the law all we could do was look at them.

After thinking about this issue for a few days I developed a potential solution to the issue and have proposed it to the Lieutenant Governor of Bonaire (appointed as the overseer of the island by the Queen of the Netherlands).  This morning I wrote the following letter to the Lieutenant Governor and laid out a proposal that could help reduce Lionfish populations on Bonaire and result in the generation of funds for local Lionfish control and management on the island.  I also copied the letter to STINAPA - the local agency that manages the Bonaire National Marine Park.

I certainly hope the Lieutenant Governor and STINAPA find this proposal to be workable and they begin allowing trained Lionfish Hunters to help them remove invasive Lionfish from their waters.  I don't want to make it sound emotional like something the National Audubon Society or Sierra Club would say, but the future of the reef fish population on Bonaire depends on reducing or eliminating the Lionfish population.  This proposal is one step in that journey.  I hope the plan works.   Cathy and I (with our spears) will be on the next plane bound for Bonaire if this happens!

March 5, 2017

The Honorable Edison Rinja
Lieutenant Governor of Bonaire
Management Office
Plasa Reina Wilhelmina 1
Bonaire, Netherlands Antilles

Dear Mr. Lieutenant Governor,

During February 18-25, 2017, Cathy Hayslett and I spent a wonderful week of SCUBA diving on your beautiful island.  While there we stayed at the Plaza Resort Bonaire and as part of our SCUBA experience we participated in the PADI Lionfish Hunter certification course taught by Hagen Wegerer of Toucan Diving.  During our training dives we eliminated two invasive Lionfish from your reefs and the following day we removed 10 more.  However, because of the rules on Bonaire that restrict Lionfish removal to only those individuals accompanied by a local, licensed, Lionfish hunter,  we were unable to legally take any more Lionfish even though we saw dozens more.   

Lionfish, as you most certainly are aware, are causing serious problems for reef fish populations throughout the Caribbean, and as far up the Atlantic coast as New York State.  Their voracious appetite and the complete lack of any natural predators is causing Lionfish populations to increase exponentially.  Currently, and until a natural predator is found or some sort of artificial control is developed, the only way to hope to control the threat to reef fishes and other organisms is to hunt and remove Lionfish.  Many divers like myself and Cathy would love to help remove Lionfish from your reefs and help to ensure the long-term viability of reef fish populations (and consequently a huge part of the economy of Bonaire).  However unless we are accompanied by one of the few local licensed Lionfish hunters that can’t happen.

As a retired US Fish and Wildlife Service wildlife biologist I am painfully aware of the issues involved with the public and its involvement/influence on natural resources.  However, and with my professional background, I am also aware of the benefit that the public can offer resource management through the active participation in resource management on top of the sale of fishing licenses or hunting licenses.

My suggestion to you is in line with what the government of Curacao is doing to help control Lionfish populations.  However my suggestion is a bit more restrictive and would result in a money-making proposition for local resource management agencies like STINAPA- Bonaire.  I would like to suggest that you change the rules so that Lionfish hunting is allowed on Bonaire by visitors but only after 1) everyone completes the Professional Association of Dive Instructors (PADI) Lionfish Hunter certification course and 2) every Lionfish diver purchases a Lionfish Hunting permit.  Already we pay $25 US for a year-long permit to dive in the Marine National Park.  Why not charge $10 US (or even $20 US) more for a Lionfish hunting permit and then earmark those funds for Lionfish management on the island?

Perhaps to ensure that only Lionfish are being taken by visitors, make it an additional stipulation that all Lionfish taken by visitors must be registered with the dive shop from which the Lionfish hunter dives or rents their dive equipment.  There are ways to gather data on the Lionfish that would also prove useful for their management – things like 1) the location hunted, 2) the number of Lionfish seen, 3) the number harvested, 4) size of each fish, and 5) the gender of each fish.  Taking it a step farther, visitor-harvested Lionfish could also be examined for stomach contents to determine what species of reef fish are being most impacted by the presence of this insidious, voracious, predator.

I hope that you find my proposal not only professional but also workable.  There is simply too much at risk on Bonaire and its mega-popular reef fish population to not take some additional steps to control Lionfish that pose such a realistic threat to the continued viability of the SCUBA diving economy of your beautiful island.

Should you find my proposal to be something of interest I would be delighted to offer my advice and expertise as a professional wildlife biologist on implementing a program that allows well-trained visitors to assist your government in reducing or maybe eliminating the threat posed by Lionfish.