Diver Rachel Bowman is an expert at hunting, catching, and killing lionfish, a species that is native to the waters of the Indo-Pacific. An adult off the coast of Australia or Indonesia normally reaches a length of about twelve inches; groupers, eels, and sharks are its natural predators, and in many nations divers are not permitted to spear one. Aquariums have long been a popular place to keep lionfish. They are housed in saltwater tanks in tens of thousands of American homes. Lionfish are especially well-suited to the role of being observed because they spend their days hovering in the water. With their shimmering white bodies covered in bright red or orange stripes, a Mohawk of spikes on their backs, and clashing patterns on their fins and faces, they are also striking. They have a sleek yet tacky appearance. The forty-three-year-old Bowman recalls that in 2012, “when I first saw one, I believed it was a fish dressed for Mardi Gras.” However, she wasn’t diving off Japan or peering through aquarium glass. A few miles from her home, she was in the Florida Keys’ seas.
Lionfish started making the transition from aquariums to open saltwater at some time in the past 50 years, perhaps somewhere in the tropics of the Western Hemisphere. The initial sighting was reported in 1985 off Dania Beach, which is near Miami. There are now millions of lionfish in the Western Atlantic, which is bad news because they are damaging to native species, eat other sea life, and upset the balance of reef life. Lionfish have done extremely well in their new home. Bowman does not consider herself to be primarily an environmentalist, despite the fact that lionfish elimination has a clear conservation advantage. She views her prey as intruders, and she believes it as her duty to fend them off. She said to me, “Isn’t it lovely to be on the side of the good guys? What you’re pursuing is not prey—the it’s enemy.” She also loves the absence of laws prohibiting the killing of lionfish. There are no restrictions on bags, sex, seasons, boats, or equipment, she declared. “The only species that is completely open to the ocean is the lionfish.” The act of hunting them is a throwback to a time before conservation measures were required, a time when it was possible to enter the water and retrieve whatever you desired.
In their close-knit society, lionfish divers share housing, swap diving tales, and enjoy friendly competition to see who can catch the most fish. A healthy, functional ecology is their aim; eliminating lionfish protects yellowtail snapper, which can then be fished for meals. Lionfish hunting is rewarding yet time-consuming. A dragnet is useless since it would snag on the reefs where they live, and they won’t chase a hook either. A pole spear, which is a metal rod with sharp prongs at the end that you launch through the water by using a rubber sling, must be used to kill lionfish one at a time. These poles come in a variety of lengths—three feet, seven feet, three or five prongs—and are known by names like the Lionfish Buster and the Lionator.
Many divers have become obsessed with lionfish hunting during the past 20 years, but nobody seems to have gone about it as seriously as Bowman. She has dived for eleven years, typically going out three times a week. She has a tattoo on her arm that looks like a lionfish spear. A picture of Bowman holding a flamboyant fish kebab—more than a dozen just slain lionfish—on a pole spear is available online.
The Mohawk, the two spikes on their pelvic fins, and the three spikes by their anal glands on lionfish are all poisonous. Their spines also contain one of the strongest neurotoxins known to exist in aquatic life. Bowman had been stung numerous times, like the majority of lionfish hunters—at least thirty times, she informed me. When she dives, she wears gloves, but it doesn’t seem to make a difference. She said, “You can say you have a puncture-proof glove, blah blah blah.” But I’m going to mock you. Humans may occasionally become paralysed as a result of the venom. “It feels like your bones and joints are pushing out,” Bowman said of being stung. In her dive pack, she keeps four Vicodin pills.
Bowman spends so much time below that she requires excessive amounts of Sudafed and bromelain, an enzyme produced from pineapples, to keep her airways open. She also frequently has facial massages. Frequent diving strains the sinuses, and Bowman spends so much time beneath. She recently emailed me a photo of herself on a dive boat during the Emerald Coast Open Lionfish Tournament, the biggest competition of its kind in the world, which took place off Destin, Florida, last year. Her lower cheek is streaked in the image by a bright-red blood stain caused by broken nasal capillaries. She nonetheless won the Open, earning her third triumph.
Even more money was on the line at the event this year: approximately $100,000 in total. A $10,000 cash prize was to be given to the team that caught the most lionfish. Whoever caught the biggest lionfish would receive a $5,000 prize. The prizewinners would also earn thousands of dollars by selling their catch because lionfish are both marketable and delicious. More than 145 participants had registered and were preparing to dive up to ten times daily, occasionally to depths of 200 feet. Bowman and her trio faced off against teams they had previously faced off against, bearing names like the DeepWater Mafia and Alabama Jammin’, while representing Lionfish University, the NGO that was supporting them. The competitors were required to kill more than 10,000 lionfish during the competition. The major, as Bowman described it to me, is this.
It is most likely due to their voracious eating, which makes them so dangerous now, that lionfish have been successful in entering Atlantic seas. The website RateMyFishTank issues a warning on “the lionfish’s propensity to consume any fish small enough to fit in its jaws.” The result of this behavioural feature was freedom and expulsion from aquariums. Steve Gittings, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s science coordinator for the marine-sanctuaries programme, who oversees the organization’s attempts to regulate lionfish, told me, “I’ve got to believe that people observed them devouring all their other fish and just threw them in a canal.”
It took a few years after the first sighting of lionfish off Dania Beach before their presence was clearly felt. By 2004, Cuba, Bermuda, and the Yucatán Peninsula had all been reached. Their ability to spread quickly was aided by the fact that their eggs, which are enclosed in oily sacs, float on the surface of the water and float on ocean currents. Although they cannot survive the winter in Rhode Island, lionfish have lately made it to the Brazilian coast, where they have been sighted.
It is realistic to assume that there are millions of lionfish nearby submerged constructions that have never been visited by humans because they tend to gather around any sunken thing. The Destin tournament’s organiser, Alex Fogg, studied lionfish for his master’s degree in biology at the University of Southern Mississippi in 2014. Fogg, who is currently the manager of coastal resources for Destin-Fort Walton Beach, can be seen diving for lionfish southwest of Destin in a GoPro video shot that year. He dives down around 100 feet to a small military aircraft that he has recently found on the Gulf of Mexico’s floor. The area around the wings and the fuselage is covered in lionfish, which resemble sea urchins in thickness and slow movement. In two journeys, Fogg spears 200 creatures before getting back on his boat. They put no effort into avoiding him. Although lionfish have a fearsome reputation, killing one is hardly like Papa Hemingway doing it in Africa. Lionfish are silent. When their neighbours go, they do not disperse. Stinkbugs on a wall, another invasive species that lacks the knowledge to flee, might serve as the greatest analogy. (Fogg uploaded his video to YouTube, where it has received over a million views.)