Mesoamerican Reef

Joining Forces to Fight a Foreign Invader: Lionfish

Lionfish in the MAR

Lionfish are now common in the MAR. Credit: iLCP

With its ornately patterned body and fan-like fins, the Pacific red lionfish is a striking creature, and a fiendishly successful predator. It eats almost any small fish or crustacean and is found in a wide range of habitats.

The lionfish has transformed into one of the biggest threats to marine life in the Atlantic Ocean, where it was accidentally introduced in the late 1980s. In its native range in the western Pacific Ocean, the lionfish is an integral part of the marine ecosystem and its prey have had millions of years to evolve to its stealthy hunting methods. But in the Atlantic, it’s a newcomer with an abundance of naive prey and no natural predators, so it grows larger and faster and occurs in greater densities than it does in the Pacific.

The lionfish has a clear preference for small, cigar-shaped fish, which is bad news for juvenile fish and in particular Belize’s critically endangered social wrasse.

The impact of the invasive lionfish on the health of reef communities also has serious implications for the livelihoods of small-scale fishers throughout the Mesoamerican Reef. Summit’s partners in the region have responded to the invasion with creative solutions. Blue Ventures, a marine conservation organization working to rebuild tropical fisheries with coastal communities, is developing a multi-faceted approach to lionfish control in Belize.

Holistic and market-based strategies are needed to engage coastal communities and other diverse stakeholders in this project. The development of a fishery and consumer market is seen as one of the most effective ways to remove lionfish from Belize’s barrier reef, said Jennifer Chapman, Blue Ventures’ country coordinator for Belize.

Lionfish are actually venomous, not poisonous, and therefore safe to eat and even delicious. Blue Ventures aim to suppress lionfish populations while delivering maximum economic benefit to those involved.

Lionfish sere

Lionfish is a delicious alternative to overexploited fish. Credit: Blue Ventures.

To drive the growth of the domestic market for lionfish, Blue Ventures has been working with fishers, restaurants, and consumers to provide training, increase local appetite, and encourage the sale of lionfish dishes across Belize.

To support the growth of the lionfish market, a social marketing campaign targets restaurants on the island of Caye Caulker, a popular tourism destination, encouraging them to serve lionfish for the first time or more consistently. As this island still has a strong fishing culture, serving lionfish is being promoted as something that supports the communities’ fishing roots and easygoing, ocean-loving vibe.

Campaign materials are being displayed along the main street in Caye Caulker, and at water taxi terminals in Belize City, with radio advertisements broadcast several times a week. T-shirts and stickers with the slogan “Eat da lion! Da fu wi island vibes” can be seen around the island, at restaurants serving lionfish, tour shops, supermarkets, and iconic island spots.

Another partner in the fight against lionfish is Oceana, an international organization focused on oceans. Its Fish Right, Eat Right program highlights the chefs, shops, vendors, and establishments that source seafood responsibly and empowers consumers to make healthy choices. The initiative helps restaurants by matching consumer demand for sustainable products with a supply chain that can meet their needs. Fish Right, Eat Right also works with restaurants to identify alternative seafood options – such as lionfish – for consumption that can reduce fishing pressure on species that are overexploited, threatened, or endangered.

Fisher spears a lionfish

Part of the fight against lionfish is raising the value of its catch for fishers. Credit: Blue Ventures

Fish Right, Eat Right’s pilot phase has 100 restaurants on board. Fishers are selling hundreds of pounds of lionfish at once as local demand has significantly increased. Government and local organizations have been exploring sustainable solutions to harvesting lionfish, including the possibility of establishing a lionfish fishery. The price for lionfish in the U.S., along with its presence in Whole Foods markets, makes the prospect of exporting lionfish one way to promote the fish as an internationally and commercially valuable species.

The Sarteneja Fishermen Association and Blue Ventures carried out a study to identify value-adding activities that can increase the prices fishers receive for their lionfish catch. The study revealed a powerful incentive: jewelry makers purchasing fins and tails for the production of lionfish jewelry can increase the value of the fishers’ lionfish catch by up to 40%.

Women show off their handmade lionfish jewelry.

Women show off their handmade lionfish jewelry. Credit: Blue Ventures.

Since then, Belioness Belize Lionfish Jewelry has established itself as the first lionfish jewelry group in the Caribbean, representing 19 women from seven of Belize’s coastal fishing communities. Through producing lionfish jewelry these women gain economic independence and diversify their household income in addition to actively protecting their reefs from lionfish.

While market-based control strategies are important to ensure consistent lionfish removals from most of Belize’s reefs, no-take zones and marine protected areas must not be overlooked, for fear of creating lionfish sanctuaries. Evaluating lionfish population densities and prey-fish biomass in protected areas will inform appropriate control strategies that engage government, nongovernmental, and tourism partners.

Every coral reef has its own lionfish threshold: the number of lionfish the site can sustain before the effects of lionfish predation upon native fish cascades its way through the marine food web. After a Blue Ventures-hosted training, marine biologists and community researchers collected lionfish and fish community data along 89 transects at fifty sites from five marine reserves. This is the most extensive investigation into lionfish populations to date for the entire Mesoamerican Barrier Reef.

Although data are still being analyzed, preliminary results from these surveys are extremely encouraging: Belize’s lionfish populations are low, both inside and outside of no-take zones, and 86% of coral reefs surveyed have lionfish populations below threshold.

Many questions about Belize’s lionfish population remain unanswered. However, they are unlikely to be eliminated from the MAR ecosystem. Understanding lionfish populations and market conditions will inform the best strategies for controlling this invader.

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