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On patrol for Lionfish on the island of Bonaire

A scuba diver hunts for lionfish on the island of Bonaire

DiverWire.com writer Lisa Mongy talks about her recent trip to Bonaire and some first-hand experiences she had on the island.

Finally someone has 20/20 foresight.  I applaud Bonaire for realizing the Lionfish were coming to the ABC islands (Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao) and being proactive putting an action plan together almost a year ahead of the first sighting.  I recently got to see how things are working but first, a little history on the situation.

Marine experts have been monitoring the lionfish for years watching them migrate north from the Florida coast to Rhode Island, around the Bahamas and the Caribbean.  In October 2008 it was reported the fish larval could cross the Mona Passage to Puerto Rico.  Now it was only a matter of time before the lionfish would hit the area. Stichting Nationale Parken Bonaire (STINAPA) and Bonaire National Marine Park (BNMP) immediately jumped into action.  They developed a plan to educate and use the island’s dive guides instructing them to immediately notify the marine park when a lionfish is spotted.  This would be followed up by a trained park ranger going back to the site and capture the fish for removal.  STINAPA also acknowledged that the plan may need to be adjusted in the future.

In the months that followed lectures and workshops were put on around the island.  While fish experts agree there is probably no way to stop the lionfish, proactive eradication may be the best defense.  Then it happened, the rumors began, and finally the day came.  As reported on the STINAPA website, “Bonaire National Marine Park received its first positive report on October 26, 2009.  They immediately implemented the previously prepared plan and park rangers were successful in the capture and the removal of the fish.”  It worked!  Sporadic sightings continued to happen, and the marine park continued to educate dive guides and new divers to the island on how to face the invasive species.

Let’s jump forward six months. When I arrived on Bonaire, my first order of business was to join the ranks of Lionfish spotters.  All divers are required to go through a park orientation which covers local rules and regulations.  Here participants also learn that the park now requests all divers to carry a sighting marker.  It’s basically a wine cork with some bright survey tape attached.  If a lionfish is spotted we should find a rock or piece of dead coral and secure the marker.  The cork floats up stretching the bright tape making the area easier for the park ranger/volunteer to find.  Lionfish are fairly territorial so it helps reduce scouting time.  After orientation everyone paid a $25.00 “Nature Fee” for divers (or $10.00 for any other type of water access such as swimming, snorkeling, or kayaking).  The fee is good for one year allowing all water access and entry into Washington Slagbaai National Park.  You receive a tag to be attached to the BC when diving or hung around the neck when doing other water activities.  The next step was to hook up with a park ranger and watch them work.

The following day I was introduced to Joi.  She’s an energetic young woman with gills like a fish, quick legs like a cheetah and eyes like a hawk.  Among her other ranger duties she is a Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) trained lionfish hunter who is known to spend her off time following up on reports and sightings.  With special permission I was allowed to shadow her on two hunting/collecting dives.  The first location had reports of two fish at one site on the south side of the island.  Joi explained her capture procedure, including the need for special nets and gloves due to the toxic venom found in lionfish spines and we were off.  We did a surface swim out to the reef edge and dropped down.

She immediately went into hunting mode.  Scanning, concentrating, and looking for the markers.  I had to stay focused.  Kick, kick, kick, stay with her, no time for pictures of the juvenile turtle, that’s for another dive.  Say hello and goodbye to the feeding eagle ray, this is a work dive!  In no time we were on the first marker and within minutes at the second, however, no fish were in sight.  We hovered around the area, waiting to see if they would come out from under a ledge.  Then we explored up and down the reef eventually determining the elusive pests must have moved or have become shy around divers.  Joi removed the markers and we made our way up and over to the sand for a slow safety stop/swim back to the beach.  It was frustrating that we found the markers and no fish.  I noted that one marker appeared to have been in the water longer than the other.  This reinforced the need to report the fish as soon as possible.  Another complication is that photographers often get close for shots using huge strobes.  The fish don’t like it and hide when they hear divers, making them harder to catch.

Our next outing was a fresh but vague report.  It would be my last chance to dive with Joy before heading back to the states so we decided to go for it.  We reviewed the capture technique then headed to the water.  After a short surface swim to the edge we dropped down and got into action.  Once again the abundant marine life was unrelenting as it called me in for the “perfect shot” which came in and out of camera range as we continued on our mission.  Finding Nemo’s “just keep swimming, just keep swimming” played through my head.  This was a work dive, don’t get distracted, we are here to take the beast out of the water.  All I could do was shake my head and smile as more turtles and rays waved hello, eels smiled and angle fish graced us with their presence.

But for now, back to lionfish.  Since the report was somewhat vague we started with the limited details.  We followed that by performing search patters, changing depths and extending the range.  After doing all we could, we never found the marker or any lionfish.  We were out of bottom time and low on air.  It would have to wait for another day.  I was somewhat disappointed that I didn’t get to see Joi in action yet, somewhat relieved that this was the first trip I had taken in several years where I didn’t see a single lionfish on any of my dives around Bonaire or Klein Bonaire.  I’m not saying they aren’t there; it seems the eradication program is keeping them in check.

While stowing our equipment Joi said the removal teams typically find fish three out of four times.  What helps the specially trained rangers and volunteers the most?  On all dives be on the lookout.  Use the fish markers attaching them to a rock or piece of dead coral.  Report the location as soon as possible.  Fresh detailed reports have the highest success rate.  If you use a camera record a video of the reef section or take a still shot but DO NOT get to friendly with the lionfish.  In addition to making them skittish, remember their venomous spines could put you in danger.  Next, contact BNMP as soon as possible.

What else can you do?  Sponsor a ranger or volunteer by donating funds to purchase the proper collection equipment.  Bringing the fish back allows for size monitoring, dissection to check stomach content and to check sexual maturity.  When you get back home be proactive in your area to educate people on the overall lionfish problem.  They are not our friends, they don’t belong in our waters.

If you would like more information on Bonaire check out the park website at: http://www.bmp.org/index.html.  For more information on lionfish go to REEFs web site at:  http://www.reef.org/programs/exotic/lionfish.

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