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Monday, January 19, 2015

Lionfish The Aliens Among Us

An alien lionfish.
Most underwater creatures appear alien to scuba divers when we come across them for the very first time. I’m not sure if it is because of the weightlessness appearance or the fluid-like movement they possess. That is of course why we chose to become underwater tourists in the first place-- to explore the vast undiscovered underwater world. Another reason why scuba divers look forward to each underwater adventure is because many scuba divers enjoy fish identification, too. However, some fish are more memorable and venomous than others. That leads me to the story of when I encountered my first lionfish.

Recently, lionfish have been getting a lot of headline news. They are dangerous to the underwater environment. The lionfish, originally thought as an aquarium fish, who in some accounts were mistakenly released into ocean waters by its owners--are destroying underwater ecosystems even faster than us humans. In fact, in the Caribbean lionfish have no natural predator. Unfortunately, a reason for their spike in numbers; due to the rate they lay eggs, two million per year; and sharks tend not too want to eat lionfish because of their menacing spikes. Lionfish though venomous, can be eaten by its primary predator, humans.

Fresh lionfish for dinner. 
I still remember my first encounter with a lionfish; it’s like a scene from a movie. It was just the three of us: our Divemaster David, my dive buddy/husband Brian and myself getting to know the waters on our first exploratory dive 30-feet down in Montego Bay, Jamaica. We all were diving through some underwater canals: first David, Brian, than myself. That is when I saw it--just lurking on the side near some corral. At first, it looked like any other fish. A translucent white, with orange tiger-like stripe markings, as its fins and appendages just dangled there. The lionfish didn’t rear it’s ugly spines until Brian swam by. It erupted, like a firework underwater, and looked alien to me! The spines on the lionfish sprouted out as a defense mechanism. So, this fish was obviously not happy with us scuba divers impeding on its territory. Scared, I had two real options: (1) swim in another direction and lose my dive buddy or (2) swim by hoping nothing would happen. I chose to swim by, and I’m glad to report without incident.

Once back on the boat, I told everyone on the Ocheana crew about my lionfish sighting. Given the reports of these pesky fish, on all of our Jamaica dives after, our other Divemaster, Diesel, always came armed with a spear. He was preparing for battle against any of the other alien lionfish we might encounter during our underwater ecotourism adventures. Diesel explained to us that in the Caribbean, lionfish were equal with sharks at the number one spot on the top of the water food chain. If Diesel was lucky enough to not encounter a lionfish on a dive he would instead pick up trash. Happily we did not find lionfish on all dives, only two of our seven.

The Ocheana crew introduced us to another fact about lionfish, that they are edible, too. A fellow diver named Ralph said, “They [lionfish] taste great! Especially with coconut milk, scallions and peppers.” The lionfish captured by Diesel (pictured above) were prepared by chefs at Montego Bay’s Sandals Royal Caribbean. Brian and I were not feeling so adventurous, but some German couples on our charter did, and dined on lionfish that evening. When back in the states, we’d also find out that there are cookbooks for lionfish meals. Since sharks are overlooking this food source, the goal is to get humans a taste of this alien cuisine and create a need to fish them--so they don’t continue to overpopulate the ocean waters. Such a cookbook is available for purchase from Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF), a grass-roots organization that seeks to conserve marine ecosystems by educating, enlisting and enabling divers and other marine enthusiasts to become active ocean stewards and citizen scientists. In fact, proceeds from the sale of "Lionfish Cookbook" support REEF’s marine conservation and lionfish research and removal programs.

In conclusion, there is an alien among us; however, the more scuba divers who encounter lionfish on their divecations and foodies who get a taste for lionfish, the less alien they become. Keep diving!

-population-we™ blog post by Becky Bohan Brown
© 2015 population-we, LLC 
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