by Barb Eller (March 2012)
The lionfish is beautiful, having zebra-like stripes with a mane of poisonous fin spines. The problem is that they are not indigenous to this area. There are many stories how they "arrived" here from the Indo-Pacific: a hurricane destroyed an aquarium and they were washed into the sea; they grew too large for private aquariums so people released them into the sea; and the stories continue. Since they are not native to the Atlantic or Caribbean they have no predators and are very prolific; this in turn affects the reef ecosystem. Besides affecting the eating habits of other reef fish, the lionfish show aggressive behavior that causes other fish to move to less beneficial waters.
Many solutions have been suggested but the one that has been promoted most often is having divers hunt the lionfish. Many lionfish competitions have been scheduled throughout the year. Restaurants have been shown how to safely remove the spines and been given recipes. Lionfish is really very tasty and can be fixed in many ways: fried, in ceviche and tacos, and grilled.
Now that you have a little background, let me tell you about my adventure. My buddies, Bucito and Moises, from Mahahual Dive Center, asked if I wanted to join them on a lionfish hunt. Since I had no experience with a speargun, I was the "bag lady." My job was to follow the guys around and, when they speared a fish, to secure it in the bag. Sounds easy, right? Keep reading.
By the time I got to the dive shop they had the truck already loaded and ready to head to the dock. Joining us were two friends of Bucito's. It was a perfect day with lots of sunshine, the water was fairly calm, the boat was loaded, and we headed south to the first site. Just before we got there, Bucito handed me a bag to collect the lionfish. The five of us got our gear on and did a back roll off the boat. The captain handed the guys their spearguns, and we dropped down to 85/90 feet and started looking around. We were not even 30 seconds into our dive and we saw a small reef shark, about 6 feet, sleeping under a coral. We quietly moved on. Bucito speared the first lionfish, turned to me and signaled Where's the bag? Suddenly I felt like the dumb blonde because I had left the bag on the boat. I laid it down when I put my gear on and forgot to pick it up. So, up I went to the boat for the bag then back down again.
Once the lionfish is speared, the diver then takes his large dive knife and cuts behind its head to kill the fish. That's my cue to open the bag so the fish can be slipped in, but we have to be careful the spines don't puncture our hands. If a spine does pierce your hand, there is a burning sensation, usually swelling, and maybe pain depending on the depth of the puncture. I no sooner got one in than another diver was ready to hand off his catch. As my bag began to fill up I had to be careful each time I opened it that they didn't float out of the bag. One of the divers had a large lionfish and we had a little trouble getting it into the bag. Suddenly I felt a sharp pain in my hand—I had gotten stabbed by two spines. I pulled my glove off to see if the spines had broken off in my hand. Fortunately the skin wasn't broken, but I did have two purple marks and my hand burned a bit.
By this time one of the divers was low on air so we all began our ascent to 15/20 feet to do our safety stop. Back on the boat we dumped the bag out to look at our catch. We collected 13 and most of them were good sized. Everyone grabbed a bottle of water and found a spot to relax for an hour before our next dive.
The next site was Margarita del Sol; we dove there the day before and saw a large number of lionfish that were a good 15 inches in length. We did our back roll in and I was just about ready to start my descent when I heard Moises yell at me, "Got the bag, Barb?" and then, of course, the others had to join in the chorus. We stayed shallower this time, about 65 feet. The first catch wasn't a lionfish; it was a lobster and large enough to feed two. Then the guys started catching one lionfish after another and the bag was getting heavier and heavier.
A very large lobster was sighted and it gave Bucito a run for his money. Bucito stabbed him and he wiggled free and shot across the coral. Two more divers came to help but the lobster kept getting free and propelling himself over the reef. Finally he was caught and stuffed into the bag. The hunt continued.
Suddenly, something inside the bag started moving around scaring the bejeebers out of me. One of the lionfish was still alive and trying to get out! About this time a diver came over wanting to put his catch in the bag. I shook the bag hard, like I was trying to pack everything down to the bottom, opened it carefully, he dropped the fish in, and I closed it really fast. The next diver came up and I went through the same routine, only this time the diver had a problem getting the fish in the bag. The bag was so full that it was hard to get the spines inside. When one spine stuck him in the hand, the diver jumped and I got stuck in the hand again. I pulled my glove off and saw that it punctured my thumb. I squeezed my thumb to make sure a piece didn't break off and I also wanted it to bleed to get any poison out. If you don't dive you may not realize that your blood is green when you are at any depth because the color red is filtered out.
Bucito called an end to the dive so we all headed up for our safety stop. Back on the boat we counted our catch for the day, almost 30 lionfish and 3 beautiful lobsters. And, yes, that lionfish was still alive! The next day was New Year's Eve and all the families got together to have a feast.
There is always something new and exciting happening here in Mahahual and I am glad to share it with you.
Until then …