photos: Aboard the Life Aquatic in the Florida Keys. Photo: Allison Griner.

The life aquatic

At a quarter past eight on a September morning, with the sun rising past storm clouds on the horizon, Captain Eric Billips unmoors his boat, the 36-foot “Life Aquatic,” from the marina.

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He steers it past tropical green waters until the Florida Keys—a string of coral islands that form the southernmost point of the United States—are only a line on the horizon. As the bow of his boat plunges towards the steely grey of the Atlantic, Billips, a seasoned sailor, is unmoved by the spectacular kingfish jumping to his left and the billfish cresting to his right.

Those fish would have been a dream catch for any sportsman, but not for Billips. He and a team of divers from the Islamorada Dive Center are on the hunt for a much smaller, more insidious prey: the lionfish.

Billips and his crew prowl the water alongside other teams taking part in the fifth-annual Key Largo Lionfish Derby, all of them searching for the spiny, striped fish with fins that flare like a lion’s mane. Billips hopes to snag two of the derby’s top prizes: one for the biggest lionfish, and one for the most lionfish overall.

He has a record to maintain, after all. Last year, Billips had hauled in the largest lionfish ever caught in Key Largo.
Gathered around the steering wheel of the Life Aquatic, Billips and his fellow divers laugh as they dream up inventive ways to catch lionfish. One of the divers furrows his brow, points his fingers like a machine gun and pretends to shoot.

This is “the new face of environmentalism,” he quips. That’s because lionfish are invaders in these waters. They’re infesting millions of square kilometers in the Atlantic and Caribbean, threatening ecosystems with collapse.

Lionfish have been dubbed by many as “the worst marine invasion ever.”
No other marine species has spread so quickly, over so large an area, causing so much destruction. They’re destructive because their appetites are so voracious and wide-ranging; lionfish will eat almost every fish smaller than them.

But scientists in B.C. have been among the first to conduct academic research on the lionfish invasion. Today, their research suggests there may be hope for containing the crisis. And in the waters where lionfish roam, the work of individuals like Captain Billips is keeping the invasion at bay.

Beautiful trouble
Outfitted with warm red stripes and long, dotted fins, the lionfish seems right at home among south Florida’s vibrant corals.
Even Isabelle Côté, a professor of marine ecology at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, can’t help but admire the animal.

“It’s by far the most beautiful fish I’ve ever worked on. It’s gorgeous,” Côté says. “It’s just a shame
they’re in the wrong ocean.”
The lionfish’s beauty is a large part of
its curse. Prized for its exotic appearance, lionfish have been caught from their native range in the Indian and Pacific Oceans and imported as aquarium pets to places like Florida. Lionfish have been documented swimming in nonnative waters as far back as 1985, likely released by aquarium owners.

The lionfish population exploded nearly two decades later, between 2004 and 2010. Around that time, Côté says, one of her students returned from researching sharks in the Bahamas with some startling news: lionfish were popping up all along the coast.
Stephanie Green was another of Côté’s PhD students at the time, and she never expected her studies to shift towards lionfish. “I think that most British Columbians start by thinking you’re going to work as a salmon biologist,” Green says.

But when she and Côté first plunged
into lionfish research, they realized that existing information was scant. Lionfish were literally eating ecosystems to the
brink of collapse, consuming any prey small enough to swallow. And they had spread to the shores of at least 17 different countries,  from Mexico to Venezuela, Cuba to the U.S. “At that time, there was pretty much no scientific literature on what was going on with the invasion,” said Green. “It was a pretty new problem.”

Stemming the tide
Côté and Green were at the forefront of a surge of scientific interest. Today, they’re joined by
colleagues from around
the world, all of them passionately working to stem the lionfish invasion. Green now divides her time between family in Vancouver and lionfish research at Oregon State University and in south Florida.

The lionfish
 threat can be all-
consuming, as
 Lad Akins knows 
firsthand. He 
was the executive 
director of the
 Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) in Key Largo
 for 16 years before 
leaving his position to focus on REEF’s lionfish campaign.

REEF organizes the Key Largo Lionfish Derby every September, and Akins is always surprised to see what kind of people join in. The lionfish hunt, Akins said, brings together “recreational divers” with “conservationists who would never think of killing a fish ever.”

The lionfish, known for its insatiable appetite, venomous spines, and hardy ability to adapt to most any new habitat, possesses unusual characteristics have made it a “near-perfect invader,” Akins says.

Though they’re limited to warmer waters, lionfish have been found as far north as Rhode Island. Côté collaborated on a predictive study to determine if climate change would increase their current range, but any potential increase “is simply dwarfed by the current rate
of expansion that’s happening without climate change,” she said. That’s how extreme the invasion is right now.
There’s no hope of eradicating lionfish from the Atlantic and Caribbean, scientists believe. But there is a chance to control them. Just this year, Côté, Green and
Akins co-authored a study that suggests
if lionfish populations are simply reduced to certain levels, native fish can recover.

And lionfish derbies are just
one of many methods of lowering populations in particularly sensitive habitats, like South Florida’s reefs.

Catch—and conservation—of the day
Back at the Key Largo Lionfish Derby, Captain Billips and the diving team
are hauling dozens of lionfish to the surface. Inside Billips’s cooler, lionfish are piled one atop the other, rebelliously flipping their fins.

Billions estimates there are about 70 fish in the cooler as he  turns the Life Aquatic back to shore. Maybe  the team has a shot at taking home a top prize.

It’s half past three in the afternoon as Billips cruises back towards shore, and there’s no time to lose. He must unload the
boat, pack the lionfish cooler into his car, and drive to derby headquarters at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park—all before the 5p.m. deadline.

There, the fish are to be counted and measured, and prizes are handed out. With 22 minutes to spare, Billips submits his catch. He waits. The final tally arrives: he has 78 total fish, the largest measuring
428 millimeters and the smallest at 177.

Those aren’t bad numbers, but they’re not enough to win the derby. The top prize for largest lionfish and biggest haul goes, comically, to a team called, “We’re No. 2,” which brought in 154 lionfish that day, with its largest measuring 435 millimeters.
But these numbers have a greater purpose beyond the prizes and bragging rights. This year’s Key Largo Lionfish Derby was the last in a three-year study, measuring the effectiveness of derbies in reducing lionfish populations.

As the derby winds down, Stephanie Green—the marine ecologist who works alongside Côté and Akins—prepares to travel back to south Florida. She’s to be there the following day, ready to follow up on the derby results. The final study, she says, will be finished this fall.

“To give you an interesting preview, we are finding that the derbies are having much more of an effect than we thought they were. They are suppressing lionfish over a really large area,” Green says.

“But it will be an ongoing battle, just like pulling weeds out of your garden.”

People back home in Vancouver are always surprised to hear about her job, Green says. But while lionfish may swim far from British Columbian shores, Green argued that lionfish research could have positive impacts even in Canada.

“Canada has a huge problem with invasive species, too,” she said, pointing to British Columbia’s problem with green crabs as an example.

Her voice full of optimism, she indicates there’s reason to hope. The lionfish invasion is creating a framework for how to combat other invasive marine species. “The approach we’re taking with lionfish, where we’re thinking about local action and how volunteers can get involved,” she says, “I think that’s something that resonates with people when we think about what we might do up here [in Canada].”

Back in the Florida Keys, that grassroots approach already seems to be working. The latest science seems to indicate that the world’s worst marine invasion can indeed be curbed. And it’s thanks in large part to individuals like Captain Billips, patrolling the shores, spear in hand.

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