Behold the Lionfish, as Transfixing as It Is Destructive

Lionfish, while spectacularly beautiful, are wreaking havoc on Caribbean reef habitats.

Photographs and text by Lorenzo Mittiga for The New York Times.

The silence underwater is overwhelming. Time passes quickly. Having spotted my target, I focus on it intensely, knowing that if I miss, and the animal gets away, it may learn from the encounter and be harder to hunt in the future.

As I approach, armed with my spear, I watch as the fish spreads its wide pectoral fins, displaying its venomous spines. (Slow and easy to spot, it relies on this intimidating display to deter would-be predators.) I take aim, pull back on my spear’s spring-loaded handle and let the weapon fly.

Two divers, holding specially designed gear for hunting lionfish, prepare to enter the waters off Bonaire.

I learned to free-dive and hunt underwater as a child, but spearfishing is no longer thrilling to me. As an adult I took up interests in marine biology and underwater photography, ultimately trading the spear gun of my childhood for my first professional underwater camera. Not long afterward, I completed a master’s degree in marine biology. For the last 10 years I’ve lived on the small Caribbean island of Bonaire, where I work as a marine conservationist photographer.

My overarching goal is to document the efforts of the local community — scientists, professional divers and volunteers — to preserve the reefs of Bonaire. And here, a significant part of the collective preservation effort is focused on a particular target: the lionfish (Pterois miles and Pterois volitans).

A lionfish near a coral reef. The animals are territorial and decimate native fish populations in their surrounding habitats.

Lionfish are native to the Pacific and Indian oceans. But in the past few decades, the animal has established itself in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea, where its invasive presence poses a serious threat to tropical Atlantic reefs and their associated habitats.

The effects are staggering. One study by scientists from Oregon State University found that, in only five weeks, a single lionfish reduced the juvenile fish in its feeding zone by 80 percent. And their reproductive output is remarkably high: Females can release around 25,000 eggs every few days. In some places, including the Bahamas, the density of lionfish may well be causing the most significant change to biodiversity of reef habitats since the dawn of industrialized fishing.

A hunter approaches a lionfish on a coral wall. The fish can be found at depths of up to about 300 feet.
Paulo Bertuol, a wildlife biologist at STINAPA, a nonprofit foundation that manages Bonaire’s nature parks, inserts a speared lionfish into a “zookeeper,” a device that helps protect divers from stings.

Communities throughout the Caribbean have employed a number of strategies to stem the growth of lionfish populations. Bonaire relies on volunteer lionfish hunters; on partnerships with Stichting Nationale Parken Bonaire, or STINAPA, a nonprofit foundation that manages Bonaire’s nature parks; and on help from local dive shops.

Divers offer a precise form of population management, since underwater hunting results in little collateral damage. But divers are limited by the depth to which they can comfortably descend — often around 60 feet. In places where lionfish are found at greater depths, traps can also be employed.

Because spearfishing is prohibited on Bonaire, and to help prevent injury, special tools were developed and distributed to help divers with their hunts. The ELF tools — “ELF” stands for “eradicate lionfish” — also help prevent damage that traditional spear guns and nets inflict on reefs.

A set of ELF tools. Unlike the spear of a speargun, which is attached to the gun by a line, the spear of the spring-loaded ELF doesn’t separate from the shaft.
After a hunting session, a diver carefully opens the “zookeeper” device to remove a speared lionfish.

While catching a lionfish is relatively easy, it can be difficult — and dangerous — to remove the fish from the spear tip of an ELF and tow the animal without being injured by its venomous spines. Thus, lionfish hunters also began using a device called a “zookeeper” — essentially a piece of PVC pipe that’s closed at one end and has a modified plastic funnel at the other end. Once the lionfish is speared on the ELF, the fish (and spear tip) are inserted into the zookeeper; when the spear is withdrawn, the fish is trapped inside the pipe by the funnel.

When I first arrived on Bonaire, I was introduced to the conservation project aimed at eradicating the lionfish. Because of my experience as a spear fisher, I was immediately asked to get involved. I agreed to participate — though my true interest was in documenting the community’s efforts.

Since then, I’ve become fascinated by the destructive capabilities of the transfixing creature.

Stripped of their venomous spines, lionfish are edible — and are served at restaurants across Bonaire.

It feels cruel to kill something so hypnotically beautiful — even though I understand, rationally, that the act is ecologically beneficial. The lionfish, after all, isn’t to blame; it likely ended up here, scientists theorize, when aquarium owners dumped unwanted specimens off the coast of Florida, possibly because they were eating their way through the other fish sharing their tanks.

And yet killing the fish, one by one, is perhaps the best way to slow the havoc they’re wreaking on the Caribbean reefs.

A portrait of the nocturnal predator.

Lorenzo Mittiga is a nature photographer based in Bonaire. You can follow his work on Instagram.

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