Lionfish are a crepuscular species, so I decided snorkeling at dusk and dawn would offer a better chance at seeing one. I walked straight from the hotel to beach, down SE 2nd and dropped my bag. The beach was mostly empty, save a few early morning shore walkers, but I felt secure leaving my rucksack of valuables on the sand and swimming out 150 feet, just beyond the buoys.
Lionfish are a venomous species that was introduced into the water near Florida and spread throughout the Caribbean. The two species of lionfish, Pterois volatons and Pterois miles, commonly known as Red lionfish and Devil lionfish, respectively, are members of the scorpionfish or Scorpaenidæ family. The family includes the most venomous known fish in the world, the eponymous scorpionfish, whose poison can actually kill a human, if gone untreated. Like all members of the Scorpaeniform order, they are carnivorous. With 18 venomous spines that are as sharp as a hypodermic needle, pray can be paralyzed before being consumed. If a human is stung by a lionfish, excruciating pain and swelling occurs, but can be mediated with hot water, which breaks down the toxin's proteins. But lionfish also exploit camouflage as a hunting technique, which native fish are oblivious to, due to their lack of evolutionary familiarity. In their native environment on the Indo-Pacific, potential prey presumably are aware of lionfish and can avoid being consumed, compared to the fishes of the Atlantic. What's worse is the insatiable appetite of lionfish; they will eat up to 35 times their stomach capacity, gorging themselves in at the chance of feast. Not only does Pterois spp. gorge itself, its palate is diverse, with at least 100 known species it has consumed. In the process of consuming and pushing out other reef organisms, the delicate balance of reef ecology has been taken to the fore. Each species function has become highlighted, as the lionfish have decimated species, one by one. After small organisms which clean the reef are gone, once consumed by lionfish, algae spreads, pushing out the foundational coral. Without their native predators, like sharks, grouper, large eels, frogfish and other scorpionfish, the population of lionfish have exploded over the last two decades. Some reefs are now entirely lionfish, a situation which can result even in cannibalism.
Removal entails using a Hawaiian slingshot spear, which is about three feet long, with a rubber band connected to the end of the spear, which is taught as the diver holds the spear near the head, where the trident is located, and releases the grip when an unexpecting lionfish is in proximity. The initial blow may be fatal, but some do escape with injuries. A successfully speared fish will be stored in a container that protects against the puncture of the venomous spines. Devices such as the Zookeeper, a clear acrylic cylinder with a one-directional trap door, have been developed specifically for this problem. More high-tech devices, such as robotic or remote-controlled submersibles are being developed with the aim of removing the human variable from the equation.
I saw everything except lionfish. A shark. A manta ray. Several stingrays. Varieties of Angelfish, lobster, puffer fish, parrot fish, clown fish, but not a single lionfish. Even a green turtle was on the reef! But no Pterois volitans. I noticed that this reef had much more fauna than the structure just six streets south and wondered how much difference was anthropological and whether these environments were in a state of change, decay, or collapse.
I returned to the reef at dusk and saw different species of fish, except lionfish. I tested searching on different sides of the reef, thinking that the hunter that relied on camouflage, like the lionfish, may prefer the ledges where shadows aided his ambush, but without air tanks my search was limited.