THWUUCK! THE HAND SPEAR shoots forward and the lionfish writhes, momentarily, before being finished with a second stab through the brain. Blood oozes out.
It is not overly gory, but I still reel from the kill and, while I am distracted, my buddy Mark Tilley, English boat captain with Ocean Frontiers dive centre on Grand Cayman, flips the spear around in his hand and in one movement dispatches the dead fish into his collecting tube.
Death is dealt with metronomic efficiency. Before I’ve even lifted my camera to take a picture, Mark is off scanning for the next lionfish.
While I understand the reasons for this kill, I can’t say I am enjoying the dive. I am a certifiable fish-lover! I travel all around the world to see different species and have long abstained from eating them. Fish are friends, not food, after all.
So why am I subjecting myself to watching them speared I am here in the Caribbean Sea to get a better understanding of the lionfish problem and what divers are doing to combat what scientists have called “the most disastrous marine species invasion event, ever”.
Anyone who has dived in the Indo-Pacific, from the Red Sea right around to the central Pacific Ocean, will have seen lionfish in their native habitat.
They were first seen in the Atlantic in the 1990s, when a few individuals escaped from aquariums in Florida (in some cases probably aided by owners who no longer wanted to keep them).
It took them a few years to get going, but by 2001 they’d become established on the eastern seaboard of the USA.
Like many reef fish, lionfish spawn regularly through the year. A large, well-fed, female will produce two large sacs filled with thousands of eggs every three or four days. She can produce 2 million eggs per year.
The eggs are spawned into open water, where they hatch and grow in the plankton for about four weeks, before the young fish look to settle down on the reef. Millions of eggs riding the ocean currents for a month gives huge potential to spread fast and wide.
Lionfish were widely established in the Bahamas by 2006, Cuba by 2007 and continued spreading south, seen throughout the Caribbean by 2009.
In 2011, scientists classified them as abundant throughout the whole region.

SO WHERE IS THE PROBLEM Lionfish are one of my favourite fish; isn’t it good news that we can now see these handsome hunters on Caribbean dive trips too
Unfortunately, the facts make scary reading for the future of Caribbean reefs. First, lionfish are voracious hunters and seem to do particularly well in the Caribbean, where the resident fish just don’t know what’s hitting them.
In the Bahamas, scientists watched a single lionfish polish off 20 small wrasse in just half an hour, and over two years measured a 65% decline in native fish numbers on a reef colonised by lionfish.
“It is something I have noticed our guests commenting about,” Patrick Weir of Deep Blue Divers tells me.
“They come up saying there aren’t as many fish as they remember from their last visit. And once I tell them about the lionfish problem, it’s impossible for them not to make a connection.”
The lionfish are especially bad news in the Caribbean because nothing seems to want to eat them, and their numbers grow unchecked. Once lionfish are dead, many larger Caribbean species will feed on them, including reef sharks, sting rays, grouper, eels and snappers. Mutton snapper, in particular, have learned to follow divers carrying hand spears in the hope of snatching a dead lionfish.
But none of these species seems to be willing to hunt living lionfish.
The result is lionfish living, eating and spawning in much larger numbers than you’d ever see in the Indo-Pacific.
In the Bahamas, scientists have measured between five and 177 times more lionfish for any given area than are naturally found on Indo-Pacific reefs.

LIONFISH ARE OPPORTUNISTIC hunters and take a wide range of prey. In the Caribbean they’ve been observed feeding on more than 50 species of native reef fish and invertebrates.
Several favourite fish of divers seem to be struggling particularly badly. Mark Tilley tells me that he hasn’t seen an arrow blenny since he started working in Grand Cayman. And having dived with him, I know few people with sharper eyes for a critter.
“Several of us divemasters have spoke about the lack of diamond blennies,” says Patrick Weir. “I’ve been looking for over two months and not seen one. I’m beginning to think something very bad is happening to them. Maybe lionfish are eating them or the food they eat”
While there is a risk of blaming lionfish for everything including the credit crunch, I have not finished with the bad news. The scientists have a final stark warning that lionfish are here to stay, and “eradication is not likely”.

SO WHAT IS THE SOLUTION Containment using a two-pronged approach. First, create a market for lionfish. Few things will reduce fish populations faster than humans discovering a taste for them!
Fortunately lionfish are delicious, and the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) has even published a lionfish cookbook. In Bermuda they’ve coined the phrase “Eat ’em, to beat ’em!”
The other advantage of a tourist choosing to eat lionfish is that the snapper or grouper that they would have ordered swims free. It’s win-win for the reefs. Shops and restaurants are being very supportive. Everyone likes the idea of actually helping the reef by eating
a certain fish.
The second prong is to encourage divers to hunt them, not as a one-off, but regularly, like mowing the lawn to keep the lionfish population low and therefore their impact on the reef to
a minimum.
In the Cayman Islands spearfishing is illegal; even importing or owning a speargun is prohibited. But the Department of the Environment (DoE) has imported a stock of short lionfish hand-spears to sell to licensed lionfish-hunters, mainly dive staff and resident divers, who are permitted to hunt lionfish even using scuba.
The spears are about 50cm long, with a trident of spikes at one end and a bungee at the other.
The diver simply grips the shaft of the spear, just behind the trident, stretching the bungee, then moves his or her hand almost within touching distance of the lionfish, aims and releases.
A second stabbing spear is used to quickly kill struggling fish, and a large tube is used for transporting the catch to the boat.

THE FOLLOWING DAY I join Steve Broadbelt, co-founder of Ocean Frontiers, who is providing one of his dive boats for six lionfish hunters (all either dive staff or resident divers) to compete in an island-wide lionfish tournament organised by the DoE.
The contest is a good excuse to target reefs that aren’t usually dived and so not culled. I’m armed only with my camera and generally in the way, but despite having to stop to pose for the odd photo, the team catches an amazing (and record-breaking) 252 lionfish on the days’ three dives.
It is a graphic indication of how many lionfish there can be on Caribbean reefs.
Between the dives, Steve fills me in on how his dive centre is handling the problem on the ground. “At Ocean Frontiers we started culling lionfish in February 2011, and by the end of 2012 we’ve removed 6,436 lionfish from our reefs,” he says. “This really seems to have made a difference, and lionfish are now scarce at all our 55 regular dive sites at the East End.”
In other parts of the island, dive centres are doing the same, and dive masters usually carry a spear when guiding. It works. Many divers now come to Cayman without even seeing
a lionfish.
“The majority of our culling now happens on our weekly hunt, which we do with customers every Thursday afternoon,” continues Steve.
“This trip targets two sites in areas that we don’t normally visit, typically between existing moorings or dive-sites. This helps with what I call the ‘conveyor belt’ effect, where surrounding areas keep delivering new lionfish to dive-sites that have already been culled.
“Our customers are teamed up with a licensed spearer, usually one of the dive staff, and serve as spotters. The average haul for this half-day trip is approximately 45 lionfish. After the trip, we cook up the fresh fish on the barbecue for the customers to enjoy.
“It’s always very popular, I think it appeals to the ‘hunter-gatherer’ instinct, plus there is a feelgood factor that comes from helping the environment.”
I ask Steve about negative reactions, because while my brain understands the need to cull, my heart didn’t exactly leap at seeing lionfish speared.
“Perceptions have changed from a couple of years ago,” he replies. “Most keen divers are aware of the situation and want to see their dive operator taking action. A few people have taken offence, to the point of cancelling all their dives with us and getting a refund.
“There is no denying that lionfish are among the most beautiful fish on the reef. They just aren’t supposed to be on our reefs. So building awareness is important, so that culling is accepted as the norm.
“I believe that divers should be expecting their dive operator to be playing their part. Our weekly culling trip is now booked out in advance.”
Scientists have implicated invasive predators as a dominant reason for loss of species and extinctions.
Of course, the most destructive invasive species of all time is a certain Homo sapiens but, in the Caribbean at least, we’re seeing that species taking positive steps to help protect the reefs.

FROM EDUCATION TO BEER MONEY
Other positives have come from the lionfish hunts, explains Steve Broadbelt. “First, we’ve learned a lot about lionfish. I can easily tell males from females now, from the patterns in their stripes, and behaviour. The males grow a bit larger and are more confident and territorial.
“We’ve also uncovered a handful of new dive-sites, and we’ve discovered old and historically significant anchors at two different locations. These anchors have been there for centuries. They are encrusted with corals and are now part of the living reef.
“Many dive staff and residents are continuing to take advantage of the new ‘Lionfish Economy’ that has been created by putting this fish on the menu. The market price needs to edge up a little more before they could quit their day jobs, but selling the lionfish certainly provides plentiful extra income, aka beer money.”