How Tobacco Caye’s Lionfish Tournament is Combating an Invasive Fish

Colorful, spikey, and a favorite of hobby aquarists, lionfish – a carnivorous species native to the Indian and Pacific Oceans – is now one of the most destructive invasive species in the Gulf of Mexico. With a voracious diet, no known natural predators, and the ability to lay up to 50,000 eggs per female every 3-4 days, lionfish have been threatening the Caribbean ecosystem since their accidental introduction into the Florida Cayes in the mid-1980s. Since invading Belize in December 2008, these invasive predators have posed a substantial threat to the barrier reefs of Belize, recognized as one of the healthiest coral reefs in the world. 

Tobacco Caye Marine Station, a research and marine education center along the Belize barrier reef established on Tobacco Caye in 2008, has introduced a new method designed to combat the lionfish threat head on: an annual lionfish tournament, which sees teams from across Belize compete to spear the most lionfish over a day-long contest. The aim isn’t only to curb the growth of the ever-expanding lionfish population, but also to gather vital data for scientists and government officials seeking to create long-term solutions to the lionfish threat. 

An aerial view of the Tobacco Caye Marine Station

While Tobacco Caye is at least two flights and a boat ride away from most Americans, we were nevertheless able to partake virtually through last week’s Lionfish Live! virtual event, which brought individuals from across the country to witness the day’s events. Over the course of the day, we were able to witness the weighing of lionfish, measurement and dissection, and analysis of what prey had been consumed by the predatory fish – all while having our questions answered in real-time by staff and volunteers. 

Wanted Dead or Alive lionfish poster showing sponsors of the event

Measuring the Catch

From the first check-in at 9:45 Belize time, with fishing teams having been out on the waves since dawn, it was apparent that this year’s catch would be substantially bigger than the last. By mid-morning, the teams had already caught 187 lionfish – nearly matching the full daily catch of 215 the year prior. 

While this number is possibly due to the skill of the fishing teams – who utilize foot-long pole spears to impale the lionfish while either scuba diving or snorkeling – it’s also true that lionfish numbers are increasing year by year, as the fishing tally was clear to show. With no natural predators to keep their populations down, it is through lionfish hunts like these that populations can be managed. Spearing a female lionfish carrying eggs is particularly valuable, as it prevents the spawning of up to 50,000 eggs per individual. 

a collection of lionfish in Belize
287 lionfish were removed in this one tournament!

By the end of the day, 287 lionfish were caught in the span of just a seven hours, compared to 215 the previous year. These numbers aren’t just valuable for bragging rights  – a percentage increase in population in the area of over 30% is important to know for organizations like Lionfish patrol, which use the data collected by the tournament to help monitor lionfish populations across the Western Atlantic. 

What Lies Inside 

Knowing the approximate number of lionfish on the reef isn’t the only data collected at Tobacco Caye. After the catch is weighed, staff, interns and volunteers at the center go about dissecting the fish to determine their last meals – important information to know what species the lionfish may be impacting. Lionfish are thought to be reducing native reef fish recruitment in Belize by up to 79%.

Doing so isn’t easy. Lionfish spines are notoriously venomous, with a wound from one causing paralysis, nausea, and extreme pain, making it the second most venomous fish in Belize (behind only the notorious Spotted Scorpionfish). Staff and volunteers dissecting the creatures have to be sure to carefully remove the spines before analyzing the stomach contents, less they risk sickness or even hospitalization. 

Dissecting a lionfish

James Troughton, station manager at Tobacco Caye Marine Station, said that he’s seen up to 41 unique species in lionfish stomachs. During the course of the dissection process, we witnessed everything from shrimp and crustaceans to lizardfish, damselfish, wrasse and even parrotfish. During the virtual experience, Mr. Troughton told us that lionfish can eat up to ⅓ of their body weight each day, significantly impacting the population of these creatures and others that serve as lionfish prey. 

What is in the stomach of a lionfish?

By reducing populations of small herbivores like parrotfish and damselfish, lionfish are thus putting additional strain on reefs, which rely on herbivores to eat algae growths which otherwise would go unchecked. In fact, since lionfish were introduced into the Western Atlantic, 7 new species of coral have been listed as threatened in areas with high lionfish populations. Knowing what kinds of fish are being impacted is therefore important to informing conservation efforts of Belize’s unique barrier reefs.  

At a time when coral bleaching, pollution, ocean acidity and other threats are putting reefs at risk around the world, lionfish are proving to be just one more stressor to an increasingly fragile ecosystem. With Belize’s reefs known as some of the healthiest in the world, combating invasive lionfish and gathering data on their population size and feeding habits is vital to continuing to keep Belize’s reefs healthy and thriving for fish and humans alike.

The Virtual Experience

Through our Lionfish Live! virtual event, we were able to spend the entire day with Tobacco Caye Marine Station, learning all about lionfish and their impacts on marine ecosystems while witnessing the measuring and dissection of lionfish in a way that would have previously been impossible without visiting in-person. And although the Lionfish Live! program was one-of-a-kind to this particular event, Inspire EdVentures has also partnered with Tobacco Caye Marine Station for our new Marine Biology Live! tours, which features tours of the surrounding coral reefs and live feedback on questions over a 75-minute experience. 

Through tours with the Tobacco Caye Marine Station – as well as our partners at the Belize Zoo and, most recently, the Belize Raptor Center – Inspire EdVentures is bringing educational experiences directly to the screens of individuals across the country, from classrooms to boardrooms. It’s our hope that these tours offer not only opportunities to engage with experts on conservation in Belize in a new virtual format, but also to contribute to the conservation work of places like Tobacco Caye Marine Station, or even travel to Belize on one of our in-person edventures

To learn more about  Belize’s coral reefs and the impact of lionfish, we encourage you to consider signing up for a tour of Tobacco Caye, an experience especially valuable for summer camps, classrooms, and other educational youth programs. Or join our mailing list to be the first to know about more experiences like Lionfish Live!

%d bloggers like this: