Belize's Uninvited Guest - by By Jo Hudson of Blue Ventures
On Tuesday July 2 at 11am, a very special box left Belize on its way to the U.S. Its contents? Eleven and a half pounds of filleted lionfish (Pterois volitans), a species that poses one of the greatest threats to the sustainability of coral reefs and fisheries throughout the Caribbean.
Lionfish, an insatiable predator native to the Indian and Pacific oceans, was accidentally introduced to the western Atlantic near Florida in the 1980s. This voracious fish has been devouring its way through much of the region’s marine biodiversity ever since, wreaking ecological havoc across Caribbean reefs from Panama to Puerto Rico.
With each lionfish capable of gulping down fish half its size, the unsuspecting Caribbean prey have never encountered a fish that hunts quite like it, and stand little chance in the face of their new predator’s impressive bulk and menacing venomous spines. The diverse Caribbean menu on offer has enabled the lionfish to develop a varied palate in its adopted home, gorging itself on invertebrates and reef fish alike.
Lionfish can be speared or captured using traditional lobster hooks. Without a Fisheries ‘Lionfish License’, it is illegal to spearfish within protected areas or on SCUBA.
Alongside its all-you-can-eat banquet, an absence of known predators in the Atlantic creates ideal breeding conditions for lionfish, with the animals reproducing at faster rates than in their native Indo-Pacific waters. This, coupled with the remarkable fecundity of female lionfish—producing up to two million eggs each year—means populations are exploding unchecked.
Five years after its first sighting in Belizean waters in 2008, lionfish are now decimating marine life along the length of the world heritage-listed Belize barrier reef. Beyond upsetting the ecology of this global biodiversity hotspot, the lionfish invasion now stands to undermine two of Belize’s most important industries: fishing and tourism.
Earning this small Caribbean nation around US $250 million each year, tourism accounts for almost one fifth of GDP, with many of the country’s 800,000 annual visitors drawn by an underwater wonderland that is now imperiled by the lionfish. And with Belize’s fishing sector worth a further US $27 million and employing 1% of the population, the loss of commercially important marine species to this unwelcome visitor threatens the traditional fishing livelihoods that are the lifeblood of the country’s coastal communities.
The Best Defense Is a Good Offense
But hope for Caribbean reefs is not yet lost. While the lionfish is now so well established that complete eradication is impractical, large-scale removal of lionfish could help to slow or even halt its rapid population growth.
But how to go about this seemingly impossible task? In Belizean waters efforts are now underway to confront the lion in its lair. The lionfish has a taste not unlike perennial favorites grouper and cod, with a delicate flavor and flaky texture. Yet fishermen have yet to catch up with this exciting new market opportunity, often remaining wary of targeting a fish armed with rows of syringe-sharp toxic spines.
Across Belize, conservationists are now working with communities to teach fishermen lionfish handling and processing techniques, in doing so cultivating new domestic and international markets for this surprisingly delicious fish.
“The common belief among the fishers in Belize was that the sting of a lionfish was fatal” says Jen Chapman, Conservation Coordinator for Blue Ventures Belize.” But when we started running handling demonstrations and the fishers saw me handling the lionfish without fear it became a matter of pride.”
Developing a market for the tasty invader is the most practical management solution, creating economic incentives for the regular removal of lionfish from Belize’s reefs. It also offers an alternative target species for the Belizean fishing industry, which is dominated by conch and lobster; both of which are showing signs of decline. Growth in the number of fishers has increased competition for stocks within Belize’s strict quota system, resulting in the early closure of the conch fishing season two years running. When the fishery is closed, fishing communities lose their main livelihood, buoying concerns over illegal fishing.
A Market for New Opportunities
Along Belize’s sleepy mangrove-fringed northern coast lies the remote village of Sarteneja, the largest fishing community in the country. Here, fishermen carve their wooden sailing boats by hand. They use these vessels for week-long sailing trips throughout Belize’s waters. With four fifths of households dependent for income on free diving for conch and lobster, this village feels the impacts of dwindling stocks first, and deepest.
“When the conch season closes early, it affects us. We can’t work, and have to try and find work elsewhere– sometimes there is none.,” says a fisher from Sarteneja who didn’t wish to be named. “Lionfish has advantages– it helps us as we can catch it and sell it, but it is bad for the reef, so it is good if we fish it. Especially when the conch season is closed, we can still work on the sea.”
Lionfish stomach contents, including a juvenile blue tang, a species protected from fishing on account of its ecological importance to Belize’s reefs: as a herbivore, it prevents corals from becoming smothered by algae.
Meanwhile, at the other end of Belize on the tip of a long, white-sand peninsula and surrounded by Mayan ruins and pristine rainforest, is Placencia; a peaceful village which has been making waves for its environmentally friendly approach to managing marine resources. The small local fishing cooperative, which was established in 1962, has been building a global reputation for its sustainable fishing efforts and enhancing local livelihoods. The success of Placencia’s seaweed farming project was the catalyst for them to explore other alternative opportunities, and develop a partnership with marine conservation NGO Blue Ventures and U.S. sustainable seafood distributor Traditional Fisheries.
“Lionfish is not only a business for Placencia and [the cooperative’s] members”, said Justino Mendez of the Placencia Producers’ Cooperative Society Ltd. “It is a business for the entire country; from Sarteneja all the way to Punta Gorda.”
The first fishing cooperative in the country to make such a bold move, Placencia now purchases lionfish harvested by local and Sartenejan fishers alike, with fish being processed in a locally-owned and managed facility. This facility, the first in Belize capable of processing lionfish, received certification from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in late June, authorizing export to the United States.
When Placencia’s first shipment of lionfish took off from Belize’s Philip S.W. Goldson International Airport bound for Minneapolis, the cooperative took a bold new step in paving the way for a Belizean lionfish fishery, setting an example for communities throughout Belize wanting to join the country’s war on the lionfish. Already other communities are following Placencia’s lead, promoting lionfish as a sustainable and delicious alternative to native reef species.
“We’re very excited about taking the first shipment here out of Belize… Right now the majority of our clients are high-end restaurants in New York City, Las Vegas, Chicago and Houston” said David Johnson, CEO of Traditional Fisheries. “We’d love to see lionfish become a common fish to eat and really make a difference in the Caribbean.”
There is a long way to go in the fight against the lionfish, but by swimming with the current of market-based incentives, Blue Ventures is hopeful that fishing could provide a lifeline to Belize’s reefs – promoting economic growth and safeguarding ecological resilience.
By Jo Hudson of Blue Ventures