Muller has become so adept at diving that he can reel off some notable feats that would impress any weekend water warrior: nearly three hours on one tank of oxygen. An average dive of over 150 feet deep. Solo diving. Diving with partners. And, experiencing the kind of steep, skyscraper-sized drop-offs underwater that casual ocean swimmers will never, ever, see. â€œI feel like an astronaut because even though youâ€™re floating in water, itâ€™s like being in space,â€ he says. â€œItâ€™s quiet, relaxing, and you feel like youâ€™re in a giant aquarium seeing all kinds of fish that are half-yellow, half-purple, so many colors. There are so many different types of animals underwater.â€
Yet a little over a decade ago, Muller began to notice a few things that were more destructive than joyful. While diving off the coast of Aruba, he observed that the coral were in really bad shape. This was due to a lack of tropical fish that usually scrub the algae off the top of it. Since the algae were able to proliferate in the area, the coral were dying. Upon further investigation, Muller learned that a fish species known as lionfish were voraciously consuming the local fish population, causing that ripple effect. â€œThey eat so much because thereâ€™s so much choice,â€ says Muller. â€œYou canâ€™t fish for them because theyâ€™re not going to take the frozen hamburger when they can have fresh steak. How bad is it? The Gulf of Mexico is totally screwed up. Texas, Alabama, the Pensacola area, itâ€™s all horrible. Itâ€™s a whole cycle.â€ Muller later created the educational website lionfishdivers.com in 2020 to call attention to the growing threat.
Others had begun to take notice too. The National Marine Sanctuary Association (sanctuaries.noaa.gov) considers the lionfish to be an invasive species which preys on ecosystems and damages coral reefs. A single female lionfish can release 15,000 egg clusters regularly. Considering that their lifespan is between five and 15 years, their population can also expand exponentially. Over the last several decades the population has spread as far north as Massachusetts and as far south as Venezuela. Theyâ€™re also well established in the Caribbean, and have been spotted in both the Gulf of Mexico and, more recently, the Mediterranean. Theyâ€™ve come a long way considering theyâ€™re native to Asia-Pacific waters. â€œThe biggest problem with lionfish is what they eat,â€ says Dr. Steve Gittings, Science Coordinator, NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. â€œThey are what we call â€˜generalistsâ€™, which means they will eat just about anything they can capture. Over 170 species of fish have been found in the stomachs of lionfish. And because they are such good hunters, and native fish are so naive to the threat posed by them, lionfish can significantly reduce native fish biomass in a very short time. Without fish and the services they provide, coral reef systems collapse.â€
It could be said that lionfish have an aesthetic appeal. The 12 varieties are distinctive, with their typical red, white, cream or black bands, complemented by lengthy, venomous, spiky fin rays. Their exotic look makes them a prime aquarium candidate, and is believed to be a likely reason why they spread. Current speculation is that six red lionfish were released in Florida waters when Hurricane Andrew destroyed an aquarium in 1992. A lionfish commonly seen in the Philippines was also spotted in southern Florida waters in the mid-80s, indicating that someone might have purposely released it.
Once in a body of water, preferably warm, mature 12-18 inch lionfish are a menace to other fish, and to some extent, humans who hunt them. Theyâ€™re capable of blowing jets of water at other prey to confuse them before attacking head on. They also release poisonous venom through their fin rays when attacked. Their stings often result in pain, nausea, breathing difficulties, numbness and more â€“ though fatalities are rare (and Muller claims they donâ€™t sting humans intentionally). And, since they can eat up to 20 fish a day, their effect on habitats is notable. â€œTheir stomachs can expand 30 times normal size while eatingâ€, says Stacy Frank, Co-Founder of Lionfish University, a non-profit group dedicated to preserving ocean reefs and native fish populations. â€œThey are the buffet busters of the reef and will eat anything 2/3rds their size or less that will fit in their mouths. Research has shown that just one lionfish can reduce native reef creatures by 80-90% in just weeks.â€
What to do about the growing lionfish hazard â€“ and it is still growing â€“ is the subject of a varied amount of both speculation and action. Knowledgeable marine authorities are still learning about how lionfish behave and how other species react to them. Thereâ€™s also the issue of whether governments should take action â€“ and if so, what they can actually do. â€œSome governments have gotten involved,â€ says Gittings. â€œFlorida is a good example. And Belize has worked effectively with NGOs to prepare and implement a comprehensive lionfish response plan. In some places, governments could help by incentivizing lionfish fishing and distribution, education of the public and visitors, monitoring and intervention (targeted culling, for example). And they could strengthen laws to reduce the removal of native fish and other stressors that are damaging reef ecosystems.â€
Frank formed Lionfish University a decade ago along with her brother Courtney Platt and Hollywood screenwriter James V. Hart (best known for writing the 1992 big screen version of â€œBram Stokerâ€™s Draculaâ€) after noticing how lionfish were decimating the reefs in the Cayman Islands as they were diving and doing research for a potential film. The trio later created an extensive global system of volunteer field reporters (Muller is one of them) who share observations and data. Along with regular updates on their website, the trio continue to work however and wherever they can towards creating more general awareness about lionfish. â€œWe just had an educational booth at DEMA (the big scuba diving convention) in Orlando in November,â€ says Frank. â€œWe also co-sponsored a lionfish derby and educational festival with The Elkhorn Marine Conservancy in Antigua this past November that was a huge success. US$13,000 was given to cullers, chefs and students in an art competition and 863 invasive lionfish were removed from the reefs of Antigua, saving millions of native reef fish.â€
Another option that is being explored is trapping lionfish. Studies have shown that lionfish are attracted to â€œstructureâ€. Whereas lobsters would actively swim into a trap, lionfish tend to hang around a stationary object. So, if a large net is built around a stationary trap, itâ€™s believed that the lionfish will swim towards it and be caught in the extended nets. Initial tests using whatâ€™s become known as â€œThe Purse Trapâ€ in artificial reefs showed promise. Now, following a grant from the NOAA to the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF), tests are currently being done in the Florida Keys at a depth of 130-150 feet to see if they are effective. â€œIf the traps work and fishermen are able to fish with them, then they could be used as a primary tool or as a supplement to another fishery (for example, a lobster operation that uses the lionfish traps in the off-season),â€ says Gittings.
Organized hunts in different regions are also becoming a growing trend. The idea being that a group of enthusiasts hire chartered boats and try to catch the highest amount of fish over a set time limit for a cash prize. For the past five years, Muller co-sponsored the Emerald Coast Open Lionfish Derby off the west coast of Florida, in whatâ€™s become known as the largest lionfish derby to date. Over the course of one weekend, $48,000 in cash prizes were given out to participating divers with first prize going to a team that caught 2,241 lionfish. â€œThey removed 19,167 lionfish altogether, which is amazing since you need to spear one fish at a time,â€ says Muller. â€œOut of all the places I have hunted lionfish, the Destin-Pensacola, Gulf Coast area is the worst. Divers in the Emerald Coast Open had the biggest effect ever on lionfish in the Gulf.â€
There are now informal discussions to have Lionfish Derbies in more locations â€“ and further afield. Turkey has been mentioned as a potential future site, as have other Caribbean islands. And more categories too, with prizes for the biggest lionfish caught, the smallest or the most caught in the shortest amount of time. The possibilities are seemingly endless, as long as the willpower and sponsors are there. As it stands, a growing number of people have their eye on the ultimate goal: eliminating an ever increasing lionfish threat. â€œEvery lionfish caught can prevent the loss of up to 5,000 native fish per year,â€ claims Gittings. â€œAnd studies have shown at a local scale, it is absolutely possible to remove enough lionfish to prevent significant impact to that ecosystem. Thatâ€™s why we encourage regular culling, and itâ€™s why we are hoping to come up with ways to remove enough deep water lionfish to prevent impact in those environments.â€
Aside from preserving natural environments, catching a lot of lionfish has another benefit: they happen to be delicious fish to eat. As the Lionfish University website prominently proclaims, â€œIf you canâ€™t beat â€˜em, eat â€˜em!â€ And everyone who has ever tasted them seems to have their favorite lionfish dish. Believed to be healthier than many other fish, there are also plenty of them at the moment, ready to be sliced and diced, fried and tried. Their taste resembles grouper or mahi-mahi and can be enjoyed any number of versatile ways. Gittings likes blackened lionfish served warm on a Caesar salad. Muller simply scissor cuts the spines off and throws them on the grill. Frank claims to enjoy lionfish dip, tacos and even lionfish ceviche. â€œWe even have a new lionfish cookbook called â€œCook Lionfishâ€ that can be ordered from our website,â€ she says. With the exception of a few forward-thinking lionfish snack bars on some Caribbean islands, this is a cuisine thatâ€™s yet to be explored, and without any immediate potential to be overfished.
A couple months ago, Muller started to get that familiar itch again â€“ to go somewhere to dive â€“ to explore the unknown. His destination of choice this time was Roatan, Honduras, a place heâ€™d never been. There, he met up with members of Warfighter Scuba, a charitable organization for wounded war veterans, rented a 30 foot boat and asked to be taken to the dark places, the water areas that everybody else stays away from. After traveling for an hour and a half, he was finally satisfied. Out came a flashlight and his three-pronged pull spear. Then he dove into the water, embarking on his 1,200th pursuit for lionfish. Way down deep, 120 feet underneath the water, he felt like he was on an Easter egg hunt. Only this time, he was looking underneath coral. Around coral. Beneath the coral. â€œThese fish have gotten very smart,â€ he thought. â€œSome of them are actually hiding upside down under the coral.â€ Finally, as he traveled up near the surface, Muller spotted one and speared it. He mentally added it to his lifetime tally â€“ more than 2,000 lionfish caught. For he was on a mission. A mission that at this rate, wonâ€™t be ending anytime soon.
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