Their introduction into the Atlantic Ocean is attributed to the six lionfish that were released into Biscayne Bay in 1991 when Hurricane Andrew destroyed a seaside aquarium. But it is also possible that many others were released into the wild when aquarium owners came home and found that their lionfish had eaten all the other expensive fish in the tank!
Today, the invasive lionfish has spread throughout Belize’s coastal waters…they are everywhere. The question is now, “How will they impact local fish populations?” You see, lionfish consume fish and crustaceans that play essential roles in the coral reef ecosystem, that are commercially important to Belize’s fishing industry and that are major attractions for dive enthusiasts. And lionfish are voracious eaters…a lionfish can eat as many as twenty other fish in a half hour!
ECOMAR launched the Belize Lionfish Project in 2008 in partnership with the Belize Fisheries Department to raise awareness about the invasive lionfish. The best way to manage lionfish is to catch them…and even better if you can eat them! Lionfish can be prepared just like any other fish. In Belize, the favorite way to serve lionfish is in tacos. A few dive operators even make lionfish ceviche between dives.
However, lionfish have venomous spines on their top and bottom fins. Extreme caution must be taken when capturing and handling lionfish since getting stung will cause severe pain for about an hour. If stung, the remedy is to place the infected part in hot water and take oral pain killers.
Divers use a variety of capture methods. While it is illegal to harvest any sea creature while using SCUBA gear, the Belize Fisheries Department has approved the Ayuso Trident, which is a mini-Hawaiian sling with 3 prongs. Before heading out to collect lionfish, divers need to get their spears approved by the Fisheries Department, otherwise they could be subject to fines. Marine guides and dive operators are encouraged to Adopt-A-Reef and keep it clean of lionfish. There are also tournaments organized throughout the year where teams compete to catch the most lionfish in exchange for cool prizes. For details on Belize’s efforts against the lionfish, please contact the Belize Fisheries Department at 501-224-4552 or ECOMAR at www.ecomarbelize.org
Linda Searle is Director of ECOMAR, an organization which coordinates marine conservation projects in Belize that focus on preserving the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System World Heritage Site.
Save a Species Meet a Manatee
With the manatee’s curious face and body shape, it’s easy to see why sun-soaked sailors mistook them for mythical mermaids. Manatees live their entire lives in water, and as herbivores spend most of their days cruising shallow seagrass beds eating plants. Belize boasts a healthy population of West Indian Antillean manatees. When one is flying between local destinations, it’s common to spot manatees during takeoff and landings as they glide through the crystal clear waters below.
Because these gentle mammals have no natural predators, they can live for sixty years. But manatees do face constant threats. Poachers hunt them for their meat, and coastal and island development projects are destroying their habitats. A number of manatee deaths and injuries in Belize are also caused by the propellers of speed boats. All species of manatees are listed as vulnerable to extinction on the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources red list. The hard work of manatee enthusiasts, such as Lionel “Chocolate” Heredia, have led to the creation of manatee safe zones such as the Swallow Caye Marine Reserve, located just off the Belize City coast.