The silence underwater is overwhelming. Time passes rapidly. Having noticed my goal, I concentrate on it intensely, understanding that if I miss, and the animal will get away, it might be taught from the encounter and be tougher to hunt sooner or later.
As I strategy, armed with my spear, I watch because the fish spreads its huge pectoral fins, displaying its venomous spines. (Sluggish and straightforward to identify, it depends on this intimidating show to discourage would-be predators.) I take goal, pull again on my spear’s spring-loaded deal with and let the weapon fly.
I discovered to free-dive and hunt underwater as a toddler, however spearfishing is now not thrilling to me. As an grownup I took up pursuits in marine biology and underwater images, finally buying and selling the spear gun of my childhood for my first skilled underwater digicam. Not lengthy afterward, I accomplished a grasp’s diploma in marine biology. For the final 10 years I’ve lived on the small Caribbean island of Bonaire, the place I work as a marine conservationist photographer.
My overarching aim is to doc the efforts of the local people — scientists, skilled divers and volunteers — to protect the reefs of Bonaire. And right here, a big a part of the collective preservation effort is targeted on a specific goal: the lionfish (Pterois miles and Pterois volitans).
Lionfish are native to the Pacific and Indian oceans. However previously few a long time, the animal has established itself within the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea, the place its invasive presence poses a critical menace to tropical Atlantic reefs and their related habitats.
The results are staggering. One examine by scientists from Oregon State College discovered that, in solely 5 weeks, a single lionfish decreased the juvenile fish in its feeding zone by 80 %. And their reproductive output is remarkably excessive: Females can launch round 25,000 eggs each few days. In some locations, together with the Bahamas, the density of lionfish might be inflicting the most significant change to biodiversity of reef habitats for the reason that daybreak of industrialized fishing.
Communities all through the Caribbean have employed numerous methods to stem the expansion of lionfish populations. Bonaire depends on volunteer lionfish hunters; on partnerships with Stichting Nationale Parken Bonaire, or STINAPA, a nonprofit basis that manages Bonaire’s nature parks; and on assist from native dive retailers.
Divers provide a exact type of inhabitants administration, since underwater searching ends in little collateral injury. However divers are restricted by the depth to which they will comfortably descend — usually round 60 ft. In locations the place lionfish are discovered at larger depths, traps will also be employed.
As a result of spearfishing is prohibited on Bonaire, and to assist stop harm, particular instruments had been developed and distributed to assist divers with their hunts. The ELF instruments — “ELF” stands for “eradicate lionfish” — additionally assist stop injury that conventional spear weapons and nets inflict on reefs.
Whereas catching a lionfish is comparatively simple, it may be tough — and harmful — to take away the fish from the spear tip of an ELF and tow the animal with out being injured by its venomous spines. Thus, lionfish hunters additionally started utilizing a tool referred to as a “zookeeper” — primarily a bit of PVC pipe that’s closed at one finish and has a modified plastic funnel on the different finish. As soon as 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 contained in the pipe by the funnel.
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After I first arrived on Bonaire, I used to be launched to the conservation mission geared toward eradicating the lionfish. Due to my expertise as a spear fisher, I used to be instantly requested to get entangled. I agreed to take part — although my true curiosity was in documenting the neighborhood’s efforts.
Since then, I’ve change into fascinated by the harmful capabilities of the transfixing creature.
It feels merciless to kill one thing so hypnotically lovely — despite the fact that I perceive, rationally, that the act is ecologically useful. The lionfish, in spite of everything, isn’t in charge; it seemingly ended up right here, scientists theorize, when aquarium house owners dumped undesirable specimens off the coast of Florida, presumably as a result of they had been consuming their approach via the opposite fish sharing their tanks.
And but killing the fish, one after the other, is maybe one of the simplest ways to gradual the havoc they’re wreaking on the Caribbean reefs.