There is only one lion in the world that can be killed responsibly – the lionfish. This is the only visitor that isn’t welcomed in the Belize’s barrier reef, the second longest in the world at 250km. It is believed that this invasive species shimmied its way into the shallows following the accidental release of a handful of lionfish from a smashed Miami aquarium way back in the 1980s or 1990s, and is now wreaking havoc in Belize. Lionfish are indigenous to the Indio-Pacific oceans and the Red Sea – not the Atlantic Caribbean belt. Back home they have a diet that isn’t a threat to the environment, with plenty of natural predators to snap them up. In Belize and throughout the rest of the Caribbean, however, they prey and pounce on every fish on the menu, giving them plenty of energy to keep breeding at a rate of knots, releasing around 20,000 eggs every four days. This has caused the populations to explode from a handful to a heaving hoard.
Fecund and feisty, lionfish boast natural armour in the form of 18 venomous spines, which means that Belizean fishermen have been wary of catching them since they were first spotted in 2009. Once they started to become aware of the takeover bid, alarm bells rang, marine conservation organisations stepped in to help and the Belize Fisheries developed a National Lionfish Response Plan. It all turned into an underwater version of Licence to Kill, with the conservation experts equipping themselves with Bond-like gadgets, such as a three pronged polespears that allows for quick targeting of the lionfish at a safe distance of 1.5 metres away from the diver, with a covered tube to put your catch in, thus not only eliminating the predator, but also the risk of being spiked by the enemy.
James Bond wouldn’t work for any old agency, and divers going in search of a mission should be picky too, as lionfish spearing holidays are the domain of conservation experts who are well trained in responsible practices and marine ecology. And of course spearing lionfish is only one aspect of these marine conservation organisations’ work. They also help local communities develop the heart of lion by overcoming their fears to take on the challenge of fishing these voracious villains and making a profit in the process. There is one other good thing about the lionfish in Belize, however: it tastes delicious. So, unlike James Bond, in real life we can feast on our victims, with relish. As other seafood stocks are strictly monitored in Belize, such as lobster or conch, this is a win-win.
It is hard to know if the mission of eliminating lionfish will ever be complete. The best way marine conservation organisations can measure their success is by upping the demand from restaurant-going tourists in Belize, but also from international restaurants. As tasty as cod, the idea of eating endless supplies of any fish is counterintuitive these days; however, lionfish caught off Belize is the responsible way to go. Travel responsible and plan a a scuba diving holiday that includes lionfish spearing on its itinerary, as well as monitoring and measuring, educating local communities and tourists, liaising with fisheries officers, increasing your knowledge of Belizean and Caribbean fish, invertebrates and coral species. What an incredibly fun way to, celebrate your achievements at the end of each day with a lionfish feast and a Belizean rum cocktail to toast your success. Shaken, not stirred.