Voracious and venomous, invasion lionfish have swarmed throughout the southeastern United States and Caribbean: bringing a swath of devastation to vulnerable reef ecosystems and economies on sea and shore. With no natural predators, lionfish would be unstoppable without human intervention. In a mission to collect data on the spiny sea creatures, the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary (FGBNMS) off Galveston, Texas, opened the Lionfish Invitational Cruise this summer: the fourth of its kind on the northwest Gulf of Mexico.
By John Tapley
Taking place August 27 to 30, the latest cruise invited 23 trained volunteer divers to examine the impact lionfish have on native fish species and their habitats within FGBNMS. Joining the entourage was experienced commercial lionfish huntress Rachel Lynn Bowman who returned for her third invitational. This year she was invited by personal inspiration and fellow champion hunter Alex Fogg. No strangers, the two competed in the Lionfish World Championship: Bowman’s team took home the gold in 2017; Fogg’s in 2018.
Bowman illustrates the experience of participating in the invitationals: an invigorating, multi-day opportunity for researchers and hunters to meet a common goal:
“The invitational is an awesome opportunity for researchers from different organizations – private research, universities, and state-run – [and] bring them together with people who commercially spear lionfish.
“We get together on a big boat that takes about 30 of us 100 miles south of Galveston, Texas to the FGBNMS. It’s a remote place and we’re out there for five days, and because it’s so remote it’s an incredible opportunity to see the impact lionfish have in a specific area. The federal permit from NOAA allows us to spearfish in the sanctuary.
“We bring the fish to the boat doing four dives per day and the research starts immediately: measured, checked for deformities, and separated based on where we get them. Those fish are then dissected depending on which research organization is on board. Any of the data collected is then made public for anyone’s use. The samples are frozen and we bring them to shore with us; they move their way through other organizations and facilities. It’s an opportunity for one fish to serve many purposes.”
The FGBNMS lionfish expedition series is all about team effort: from the charter operator to the hunters and scientists, to the management back on shore.
“While we’re out there, certain members of the expedition are in the waters spearing lionfish. Scientists and researchers are also in the water with their clipboards: doing fish counts and ID. We have transect lines laid out… so we know when we were here in June, this transect served x number of the species and y of this species; we removed z number of lionfish. Now here we are in this exact same quadrant and we count x and y of the species and z lionfish.”
In June (a preceding invitational), participants successfully removed 364 lionfish from sanctuary waters; August’s tally was 809, including a new record for Texas state lionfish with a specimen measuring 444 millimeters in total length. Because the invasive creatures breed quickly and in large numbers, every effort from the team made an overall impact.
“In an area of 59 square miles, 809 fish doesn’t seem like that much,” Bowden explains. “But when you do the math on how lionfish reproduce, it’s quite a trend. We’re giving [native] juvenile fish a little bit of help.”
Alongside Flower Garden Banks and the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, three other organizations lent their hand to the invitational’s success. The Texas Lionfish Control Unit lead the expedition with scientists and volunteer divers; funding for the cruise came from Ripley’s Canada Aquarium of Toronto, Ontario, and its conservation grant program; Fling Charters, an operation out of Freeport, provided liveaboard services.
“We’ve always worked with the sanctuary since we’ve owned the boat,” explains Fling Charters co-owner Sharon Cain, who personally captained each day. “Once they got the funding, we set it up, get them on our schedule, take them out, and feed them while they’re out there. Anything we can do to help them out – we get 30 people out there to make a big dent in [the lionfish].”
“Having been on other liveaboards, you’re incredibly spoiled,” exclaims Bowman. “The staff 100 percent remembers you and everything about you, and it’s comfortable. The captains are wonderful and the staff appreciates the area. It’s their backyard and they take pride in what they do.”
With another successful lionfish event, FGBNMS and partners are currently working on garnering funds for two potential events in 2019: unveiling more secrets toward combatting the lionfish horde.
“The thought process on lionfish is that we’re aware complete eradication is not going to be a possibility,” Bowden says. “However, studies on isolated areas in the Bahamas show that with consistent lionfish removal, there’s a resurgence in native fish populations. Every time lionfish are removed from the area you’re giving the species an extra chance to bounce back.”
For more information on FGBNMS, including news and updates on future lionfish invitational cruises, visit www.flowergarden.noaa.gov.