20190815 Dawn | Dusk

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.

20190816 Reef | Data

At 6:30 I was heading to the beach down SE 8th St. There were already divers in the waters and when I reached the reef I was surprised to see much more fauna and coral than at the structures of north and south. Still, no lionfish. 

We attended the derby kick off event, where Lad Atkins, the founder of, reef environment educational foundation, spoke about the dangers of lionfish.

Pterois Origins

The lore around how lionfish were introduced into the Atlantic waters once pointed to Hurricane Andrew, which had smashed a large aquarium, situated on Biscayne Bay. Some of the fish which escaped were later retrieved,

Another theory was the lionfish escaped a Miami home aquarium that had been destroyed in the hurricane. Some believe they were simply released by aquarium owners who were distraught by the destruction of the aquarium life by a lionfish introduced by an unwitting individual. You can imagine it: a guy goes to a local aquarium store, sees this stunning fish, pays $80 for it, brings it home and drops it in his tank; an hour later all the other fish are gone. Then the guy thinks, shit, either I get rid of this thing or my aquarium is now just a glass cube with this fish inside. A couple weeks later we decide to release it into the bay. 

The observation of lionfish in waters around Florida as early as the 1970s suggests that it was not that singular event, at least not just Hurricane Andrew, but it could have been all of these contributing factors. What's interesting is that when the lionfish were first observed in  Florida reefs by marine biologists in the 1990s, they didn't remove them because they wanted to see if the species could coexist, that is, if the biodiversity of the reefs would improve with lionfish. And there are other non-native species that exist in Florida waters, which currently do not cause utter pandemonium. 

Another theory is that eggs or larvae were carried in ballast water from their native habitat and dumped in the ports of the US. 

A recent study showed that lionfish taken from the Gulf of Mexico and northeast Florida have homogeneous DNA, suggesting that a small group of ancestors as well as very little adaption as the population has spread.


With the average female spawning 27,000 eggs every three days, Pterois spp. have spread throughout the Caribbean, as far south as Brazil and colonized as far north as the Carolinas. As water temperatures change due to seasonal stream changes, populations can be found as far north as New York. They can inhabit water as shallow as a few inches and have been found as deep as 350 meters, over 1,000 feet.

Models of currents predict a future expansion of the lionfish domain, which can carry eggs and larva to distant places, such as the recent introductions to the Bahamas. At present the Bahamas have responded with their own derbies to try to forestall the population explosions of the invasive species. The colonization in the Bahamas confirms what the genetic analysis of populations of the east and west side of Florida suggest. But the prediction of ocean currents as a conveyance for Pterois is only one of the tools that bares bad news. The models of climate change, and increased water temperatures only makes matters worse. One study predicts, "the effects of warming temperature on lionfish pelagic larval duration and dispersal and predation rate, it was found that increased temperatures set the perfect stage for an invasion to thrive." Predictions expect a full 1-degree increase in water temperatures; with warmer waters, their range increases, but the larval stage is also shortened, permitting even faster rates of reproduction and growth. Waters at 10 degrees Celsius are lethal to Pterois spp. and feeding stops at 16 degrees C. With warmth spreading north and south, more species will be impacted permanently, and greater numbers of seasonal lionfish temporarily depleting native groups. 

In tandem with tools that predict further expansion are unexpected spread of lionfish. As the problem has garnered more interest and concern, increased monitoring and research has found lionfish adapting to deeper depth, and cooler waters, than previously believed. Individual lionfish have been found at reefs as low as 1,000 feet deep. It’s not clear if this is an evolutionary adaptation or simply a trait that was not recognized.

The spread of lionfish is also occurring in distant, unconnected locations. In 2012, colonies of lionfish began to appear around Cyprus, Greece, Turkey, Tunisia. In the cooler waters of the Mediterranean, procreation is not expected to occur at the same rate as at the equator. Rather, their presence is a bioindicator of the nodes of globalized trade.

Not only do these derbies have a direct impact on the coral reefs, they are also used to gather data on the life and biology of lionfish. When each teams’ fish are counted, they are also measured in order to get a sense of the age of the population. The fish are put on ice if they will be eaten as part of the event, sold for consumption, or further analyzed. Researchers have used these catches as opportunities to examine the stomach contents of lionfish, which form statistical analyses that would be otherwise prohibitively expensive for research teams to conduct. From these studies, researchers have shown the dramatic breadth of what lionfish may eat, as well as the unexpected capacity of their appetite. Collectively, these analyses are the foundation of the hysteria around the lionfish invasion, but they also demonstrate a relationship between humans and marine life, a relationship that is quantified and driven by data. This may not seem remarkable unless its juxtaposed with how we thought of marine life a half century ago. Popular knowledge would be informed by television shows like Flipper (1964-1967) or The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau (1967-1976), also scientific understanding was informed by the technologies built that Cousteau developed, such as the Conshelf 1, the underwater habitat for humans. Even within a decade from the airing of Sea Hunt (1958-1961), which was essentially an underwater police show, and Cousteau, the focus has shifted from people underwater to the lifeforms found underwater. While Sea Hunt may continue the military origins of the SCUBA equipment, Cousteau continues the ontological pursuit of Melville’s Moby Dick. While Melville’s 1851 classic follows the unknown movement of a singular white whale, we can only imagine how the book would read in today’s context in which marine life is tagged and tracked with technologies that extrapolate the lifeforms’ relationship to the ocean and how we may mitigate our impact on those species. 

I was surprised by some of the data shared at the kick off event: some reefs lost as much as 95% of marine life; on average a reef loses 45% when lionfish are introduced. While I was surprised and appalled, the rest of the audience had mostly heard the presentation, which I took as a bad sign, since that equated to their experience. The only rise from the audience came when Lad solicited remarks on what it was like to be stung by a lionfish. One man shouted out that he cried like a baby, as if he were confessing his trespasses. We met a team that had won 11 tournaments and included the inventor of the Zookeeper, the standard container to hold lionfish. I spoke with a PhD candidate who had been researching the human influences on environmental systems. One thing that was clear: we were in over our heads.

20190817 Lionfish Derby | Lionfish Tasting

The similarity to the Redneck Fishing Tournament–a grassroots organized event aimed at merging sport fishing with environmental causes–was too good to pass up. Marine conservationists, such as and Coastal Watch Alliance, have partnered with dive shops throughout Florida to encourage scuba divers to compete in lionfish derbies. Scuba diving and spearing the lionfish is the standard, and most effective manner to remove the species from the water. But it's time intensive, and costly, since scuba diving itself is a niche activity with time limitations of how long a diver can stay underwater. 

The State of Florida has encouraged the removal of lionfish through derbies as well as an online raffle and harvesting competition. Divers register as recreational or commercial harvesters and confirm the statistics of size and number of fish by simply taking a photo of the catch with the fish on display and upload to the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's website. Cash prizes and sponsored-donations of gear create tiers that attract more participation. And people in Florida generally like to kill things, probably because life thrives so easily in this climate.

The derby idea is pretty simple: cash prizes for the most lionfish and/or the largest lionfish, as well as the smallest lionfish. In Pompano, the cash prize is divided by those who have paid to ride the chartered boat owned by South Florida Diving Headquarters, and those who own or operate a private boat. Strangely, this blatant conflict of interest, i.e. the use of tax-payer funds to divert profit to a local company is tolerated. The rules stipulate that only fish caught during the period of 4am-4pm on the day of the event are eligible to be counted, and the fish must be in its entirety to count as a fish. At least one team member must attend the educational event held on the Friday before the event. 

On the boat, there were about six or seven teams made of pairs. Henry, whom I met on the Aqua Zoo and had convinced to team up to form MI-NY. No introductions, no nametags, no co-mingling. These people came to win. 

Henry and I chatting with a photographer from Shipwreck Park and the dive master, Dave, but there was very little friendly chit-chat, compared to the scheduled dives before the competition. I couldn't tell if the reluctance of the other teams to mingle was because Henry and I were outsiders or because everyone was too focused on getting in the mood to hunt. The location of the dive was not disclosed prior to departure, but we were told we’d head to an artificial reef off Commercial Street in Lauderdale By-the-Sea, but we learned on the approach that several private boats had already anchored up there so we headed for a reef instead.

When the boat finally came to a halt, teams started jumping into the water, with little or no discussion as to who would go in first or whether there was an advantage in going in first or last. To add to the confusion, there were two guys who were just diving for fun. 

Henry and I were last into the water and instructed that, if we came to the end of the reef, we should continue swimming north a few minutes and we would arrive at the next reef. We hot dropped down 45 feet onto the center of the field and soon saw another team scanning for lionfish. A nursery shark passed and several other fishes, but no Pterois. We had discussed taking turns spearing; this round was Henry’s chance, we had imagined each successful spear throw handing over a lionfish to me and I handing him the second spear, then I would put the bounty in the Lionfish Tamer. That was how it was supposed to happen, but the only problem was that we didn't see any lionfish. I followed Henry as he searched over the landscape when we came to the end of the reef and swam north, over the featureless sand. Five minutes. Ten minutes. I attempted to direct us in the correct direction by using my recently acquired compass skills, but by the time I pulled us north we had gone so far west as to just swim parallel with the reef. I realized we would run out of air before we found any other lifeforms. A boat passed over head as we were ascending, and it sounded like a distant helicopter, almost hitting our dive flag on the surface.

The lost opportunity wasn't that detrimental. Few lionfish were brought up. One team pulled up two fish and a team in the back poured eight fish into an ice chest. I realized that their team appeared to be made of more than four people. The organizers had not instructed bringing coolers for the catch. One guy had cooler for lobsters but of the 14 plus people, supposedly in pairs, meaning seven teams, there were three coolers on the boat. Something smelled fishy. 

On the second dive I was hunting while Henry recorded. The new reef appeared equally desolate but by half my tank, I spotted a lionfish on the roof of a coral ledge. I moved slowly and brought the spear into position of less than a foot away, nearing it as I awaited any sign of movement before letting the Hawaiian slingshot fly. I handed the spear to Henry and took the new spear. What I learned was the description of where to find these fish was misleading. I had been told that Pterois volitans congregated at the edge of coral, but had I been told they were essentially seabats, nestled upside down on the roof of the coral overhangs, we would have found them earlier. Biologically it makes sense, since the coloration of the fish is dark purple and maroon, which appears like coral shaded from sunlight. Now, I find them at every ledge, but I got greedy. Each fish was in a pair, and I would locate them and waive Henry to bring the second spear, so I could get both, one in each hand, but the couple drifted into the coral maze, away from site or reach. This happened three times and I soon realized I was down to 500 psi and we had to surface.

At the end of the tournament, we tied for second on the chartered boat, but the winners had caught around 14 fish. At the docks we had our fish counted and measured. I stayed after to clip some venomous spines and noticed that the winning team had submitted their fish much later than everyone else on the boat. 

At the awards ceremony, the winning team on the charter boat not only had more fish than anyone saw them catch but their team included people who weren't even on the boat. A blonde with thick thighs and big, fake tits was on their team; the kind of person you can't miss in a sport that's predominantly middle-aged white men floating in the middle of nowhere. I knew she wasn’t on our boat. Their team had purportedly found and speared thirty fish. Where they came up with the other fish was either they had jumped on a second boat after the first, or they had looked multiple team catches together. 

Each landed fish was awarded a ticket that was entered into a raffle of prizes donated by the sponsors. The winning team won 8 prizes in a row, which was statistically improbable, but the fact that each winning ticket that was called occurred in the numerical order of the ticket confirmed my suspicion that this raffle, and probably the entire tournament, was rigged. I have never seen such blatant corruption and for so little money. It was pitiful. The winners took all of the sponsored prizes, even though their 30 tickets were a small fraction of the 600 fish caught and 600 raffle tickets.