The silence under water is overwhelming. Time passes quickly. After seeing my target, I focus on it intensely, knowing that if I miss, and the animal escapes, it can learn from the encounter and be harder to hunt in the future.
As I approach, armed with my spear, I watch the fish spread its broad pectoral fins, displaying its venomous spines. (Slow and easy to spot, it relies on this intimidating screen to deter would-be predators.) I aim, pull the spring-loaded handle of my spear, and let the weapon fly.
I learned to free dive and hunt underwater as a child, but spearfishing is no longer exciting for me. As an adult, I began to take an interest in marine biology and underwater photography, eventually trading my childhood speargun for my first professional underwater camera. Not long after, I completed a master’s degree in marine biology. For the past 10 years I have lived on the small Caribbean island of Bonaire, where I work as a photographer for conservationists.
My overarching goal is to document the efforts of the local community – scientists, professional divers and volunteers – to preserve Bonaire’s reefs. And here, a significant portion of collective conservation efforts are focused on one particular target: the lionfish (Pterois miles and Pterois volitans).
Lionfish are native to the Pacific and Indian Oceans. But in recent 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 habitats.
The effects are amazing. A study by Oregon State University scientists found that a single lionfish reduced the young fish in its feeding zone by 80 percent in just five weeks. And their reproductive output is remarkably high: Females can release about 25,000 eggs every few days. In some places, including the Bahamas, the density of lionfish may be the cause of the most significant change in reef habitat biodiversity since the beginning of industrialized fishing.
Communities across the Caribbean have used a number of strategies to curb the growth of lionfish populations. Bonaire relies on volunteer lionfish hunters; on partnerships with the National Parks Bonaire Foundation, or STINAPA, a non-profit foundation that manages Bonaire’s natural parks; and on assistance from local dive shops.
Divers provide a precise form of population management, as hunting underwater does 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 used.
Since spearfishing is prohibited on Bonaire and to help prevent injuries, special tools have been developed and distributed to aid divers in their hunt. The ELF tools – “ELF” stands for “eradicate lionfish” – also help prevent damage that traditional spearguns and nets inflict on reefs.
While catching a lionfish is relatively easy, it can be difficult — and dangerous — to remove the fish from an ELF’s spearhead and drag the animal without being injured by its venomous spines. For example, lionfish hunters also started using a device called a “zookeeper” – essentially a length of PVC pipe that is closed at one end and has a modified plastic funnel at the other end. Once the lionfish is impaled on the ELF, the fish (and spearhead) are inserted into the zookeeper; when the spear is withdrawn, the fish is caught in the pipe through the funnel.
Travel trends that will define 2022
When I first arrived on Bonaire, I was introduced to the conservation project aimed at eradicating the lionfish. Because of my experience as a spearfisher, I was immediately asked to participate. I agreed to participate – although my real interest was in documenting the community’s efforts.
Since then I have been fascinated by the destructive powers of the transfixing being.
It feels cruel to kill something so hypnotically beautiful – even though I understand, rationally, that the act is ecologically beneficial. After all, the lionfish is not to blame; it probably ended up here, scientists theorize, when aquarium owners dumped unwanted specimens off the coast of Florida, possibly because they were working their way through the other fish sharing their tanks.
And yet killing the fish one by one may be the best way to slow down the havoc they wreak on the Caribbean reefs.