Monday, November 28, 2016

In Defense of the Lionfish

The lionfish is a Pacific fish that began populating the Atlantic ocean and the Caribbean sea about two decades ago or so. According the NOAA (the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), the exact date and the manner by which the fish arrived on this side of the Americas is unclear, but what is sufficiently clear is that it was humans who facilitated its arrival. The lionfish is a predator that feeds on small fish. The main issue with the lionfish is that, because of its recent introduction into the Atlantic's and Caribbean's ecosystems in evolutionary terms, the lionfish has no natural predators. Fish that would normally feed on lionfish in the Indo-Pacific, such as groupers and moray eels, do not recognize it as pray in the Atlantic.

As hard as they tried, humans have not been able to teach those Atlantic cousins of the Pacific lionisfish predators, to eat lionfish. Every attempt of such biological control has thus far failed. For example, in Bonaire, a few years ago, people started feeding dead lionfish to moray eels. The eels ate the lionfish, being naturally immune to its venomous spines, but after a while they started becoming aggressive towards divers as they began to associate the latter with food. Also, the eels were not seen hunting live lionfish because they probably did not associate the dead lionfish with the live ones.

I remember that shortly after lionfish was first sighted in Bonaire, STINAPA (the Bonaire National Parks Foundation, Stichting Nationale Parken Bonaire) started giving divers corks attached to plastic strings so that recreational divers could mark where they sighted the fish – thus contravening the marine park rule that forbids divers from tying anything to the reef. Park rangers would then collect the marked lionfish. This type of mechanical control is possible because the lionfish is a territorial animal, meaning that it tends to stay in one particular spot. The downside of this strategy was that within a few months the reef started to look like a surreal giant holiday decoration. On every dive one could see several corks floating around the reefs. Even worse, sometimes the corks would detach from the reef and float to the surface, thus posing a hazard to turtles who could choke on the plastic string believing it was jelly fish. Needless to say, this plan was also scrapped.

Thus far, I summarized the history of attempted mechanical and biological controls of lionfish in Bonaire. The reason why I am mostly concentrating to attempts in Bonaire is because I have first hand experience of it during the many years I have been visiting the island. Yet, it is likely that similar overzealous attempts to control the spread of lionfish are being tried elsewhere in the Caribbean and on the Atlantic coast of the United States. In fact, I recently saw a video on YouTube of a Divemaster feeding a dead lionfish to a toadfish in Roatan (below). I have also personally witness this on the Mexican island of Cozumel.

Today, PADI – the Professional Association of Diving Instructors and by far the largest association of its kind with more that 50% of SCUBA dive certifications – promotes the Invasive Lionfish Tracker distinctive specialty course, where the student is taught to "safely and humanely capture and euthanize these fish." (Notice the clearly speciesist language wrapped in seemingly neutral terminology. I wonder if any human being would be amenable to be deprived of life through no fault of their own if it were done safely and humanely. I would think not, but that's the crux of speciesism: the idea that humans are somehow superior to other species by virtue of their might.)

According to the Cayman Compass, in 2013 PADI had some misgivings about promoting the indiscriminate killing of beautiful sea creatures such as the lionfish. But then, still according the the Compass, it reversed itself once more (perhaps bowing to the pressures of Caribbean dive operators who believe that lionfish are bad for business: i.e. no fish, no divers). In the story, Norma Connely quotes Brad Smith, training manager of PADI Americas, saying that "in light of the destructive nature of the invasive lionfish [we] determined that it was worth making an exception" to their no-take approach to marine conservation. This would help explain PADI's sanitized course description I quoted in the previous paragraph. In addition, still according to the Compass, PADI has also approved the more 'inhumane' spearfishing of lionfish by individual Caribbean operators. One such operator is Ambassador Divers in Grand Cayman:

In Bonaire, STINAPA promotes its own 'inhumane' version of yet another PADI approved Lionfish Hunting distinctive specialty course. On Bonaire's VIP Diving's website, for example, one can see a student practicing his spearing skills with al E.L.F. removal tool (Eliminating Lion Fish tool, basically a trident shaped spear with a fairytale-sounding name) with a smirking partner (instructor, perhaps?) at his side (below). For $150 one gains the privilege of having a license to kill fish on otherwise protected reefs.

In the picture's foreground, we see the Zookeeper™. The device allows the certified reef killers to store the moribund lionfish for the remainder of the dive. The slogan of the manufacturer being: "until a natural predator emerges."

Given all this, it seems that the lionhish,  at least in the North American and Caribbean diving cultural cohorts, has replaced the shark as the evil creature that must be destroyed. And as divers continue to campaign in defense of sharks in order to change its unwarranted media fueled image in the popular imagination, they seem to have directed their own thirst for blood onto the lionfish.

So, why is all this problematic?

As you may have guessed by now, this post is about humans first destroying their environment and then creating even more havoc as they try to rectify the situation. Perhaps this story could be taken as a cautionary tale on the idea that climate engineering may the best and easiest way to ameliorate global warming and its nefarious effects on the environment which includes coral reefs. But this is also, as we shall see, a story of the tendency of humans to scapegoat others for their own failures.

At face value, it seems self-evident that the eradication of an 'invasive' species that appears to threaten the balance of an entire ecosystem should be deemed a top priority. (I put 'invasive' in quotes because this term is problematic in itself.) But this appearance turns out to be just that. Not because the lionfish is not a disrupting element in the Atlantic and Caribbean ecosystems, but simply because, as the NOAA and others assert, the remedies that have been implemented are ineffectual. According to researchers De Vries, Rannap, and Briggs, for example,
a well-established exotic species can be almost impossible to remove from a community. Threats posed by invasive species today are so severe that reducing the rate of their introduction needs to become a greater priority in conservation efforts.
"Most scientists agree," the NOAA writes, that "it is unlikely that the lionfish's invasion of U.S. waters can be reversed." In addition, "scientists predict that lionfish will continue to increase in abundance." However, "scientists do believe ... that lionfish can be controlled in some locations, such as some Caribbean islands and marine protected areas." In regard to this latter point, my own admittetly unscientific personal experience in Bonaire shows that lionfish is still proliferating regardless of containment efforts.

If eradication efforts of lionfish do not serve their stated purpose, what other purpose can they serve? And if these efforts are about lionfish population control, what are the costs of these efforts to the ecosystem? In my opinion, while attempt to control lionhish population is definitely a factor, the manner in which these efforts have developed and the way they have been popularized is also sign of some deep seated human psychological drives.

As mentioned earlier, one such drive is the apparent need to scapegoat and punish someone, or something, for one's own failures. In regard to lionfish, this drive assuages and redirects the anger of those who are unwilling to seriously look at what is really endangering the world's reefs – namely, global warming.

This type of tunnel vision reminds me of a scene from Jacques Cousteau's famous movie The Silent World (1956). In the scene, the RV Calypso (Cousteau's research vessel) encounters a group of sperm whales. As they follow the whales, a baby whale who cannot keep up with the group falls behind, and as it gets too close to the boat it is mortally wounded by the propeller. Here, Cousteau the narrator is quick to blame the whale's "childish carelessness" as if it should have known what a propeller is. During the next several minutes we watch the small whale in agony as it frantically swims trying to catch up with the group. As she continues hemorrhaging, one of the sailors puts her out of her misery by shooting her. At this point several sharks, attracted by the whale's blood, start attacking the whale's carcass. Cousteau continues his narration saying that "every seaman hates the sharks" and that after witnessing such an attack on the dead whale "the divers can't be held back. They grab gaffs, books, anything they can to avenge the whale" (emphasis added).

And so the carnage begins, the Calypso divers start killing one shark after another. They pull them onboard with hooks while one of the divers hits them with an axe. All this to "avenge the whale." But wait, wasn't it the Calypso that killed the whale? Shouldn't revenge thus be taken on whomever failed stop the engines before the Calypso hit her? The sharks simply did what's in their nature. Yet, the rage of the sailors was visited upon them. And so the divers not only ended up with a dead whale, but also with a bunch of dead sharks. Some vengeance. The depressing part of all this is that in the mind of the divers, as well as that of Cousteau, the killing of the sharks was entirely justified. (The scene begins at 52:04 and ends at 1:01:40).

Sixty years later, the similarities between the Calypso shark carnage and the hunting of lionfish are striking. Today we have so-called stewards of the oceans, namely divers – supposedly with much higher consciousness than Cousteau and his cohorts had – who are intent on killing and maiming a fish whose presence in this part of the world is solely due to human behavior. Yet, against all scientific evidence on the feasibility of eradication and, perhaps, even control, the carnage of lionfish not only continues unabated but it has become some sort of sport to be celebrated over drinks.

For example, on Saturday, June 21, 2014 STINAPA opened the Karpata Reserve (normally closed to divers) to lionfish hunters in support of the Bonaire Culinary Team. Prizes were "distributed to the biggest, smaller and most lionfish." In the hunting call, Ramón de León, the park's manager, wrote:
If you think you are the one that catch [sic] the most, you better start counting before we start drinking. 
Let's get some fish for Bonaire Culinary Team show to [sic] irresponsible FL citizen releasing exotic species in the wild what we do with the pest they start.  
This is what in psychology is commonly described a cognitive dissonance or the ability to entertain two contradictory concepts in one's mind. The concepts of the shark and the lionfish are contradictory because, on the one hand, divers have no qualms in pontificating about how other cultures – namely the Chinese and Japanese – are decimating the shark, whale, and dolphin populations; at the same time they are also eager to engage in the same type of behavior when it comes to lionfish. And while lionfish is not endangered like sharks or whales the mindset is the same.

To understand the irrational nature of the whole enterprise one simply needs to be on a dive where a lionfish hunter is present. The hunter becomes the star of the dive, a revered figure intent on performing a kind of sacred rite. Many divers willingly volunteer to spot lionfish. The excitement that ensues when a diver spots one is palpable. As the hunter approaches its oblivious victim and goes for the kill the excitement turns into a frenzy. In some ways it's a spectacle that is reminiscent of ancient Roman circuses, medieval lynchings, and more recent bullfighting. One cannot help wondering if we are actually much different than those who we look down to with patronizing disdain.

The lionfish hunters not only terrorize the lionfish, but as they try to spear their victim they inevitable hit corals, thus damaging the surrounding ecosystem and scare off any fish in the vicinity. Whenever the hunter misses, which happens quite often, the lionfish escapes by creating a cloud of silt that ends up covering the nearby corals. In addition, lionfish hunters tend to mostly hunt on islands' leeward side and at shallow recreational depths – which means that lionfish that exist in remote areas and at depths greater that forty meters are free to reproduce and proliferate.

Thus, the question ensues: are these clear damages to the reefs worth the effort, or is it just a way to attract and excite tourists like the now ubiquitous shark feeding dives? One could argue that lionfish hunting is even more exiting than shark dives. In the former we get to see someone actually die. Perhaps somebody should start a reality TV show called Lionfish Hunters.

Ineffectual and damaging efforts notwithstanding, divers all over the Caribbean and beyond have convinced themselves that it is possible to eliminate or at least contain the spread of lionfish. A lot of resources are directed in this direction while not much has been done in regard to the real threat that marine ecosystems are faced with. For example, in 2001, a study by the NOAA concluded that "the majority of the world’s coral reefs are threatened by human activities." According to the report, coral reefs could die by 2050 – with or without lionfish  – due to acidification and warming temperatures. On Australia's Great Barrier Reef scientists have just recorded the biggest ever coral die-off.

In other words, the marine ecosystem is, in latest instance, not threatened by lionfish, or by sharks, but by humans like you and me. And yet, the discourse of lionfish as an 'invader' has become somewhat of an obsession with divers – perhaps fueled by equally bogus discourses on illegal immigration. Could this be a case of false consciousness? Could it be that as we – with the U.S. in the lead – are intent on destroying the world as it is, we are trying to distract ourselves from the one thing that must be done with futile concerns such as lionfish hunting and coral restoration projects?

While it is understandable that individual divers feel powerless against the systemic threats of expansionary capitalism to the ecosystem, it is not clear how the killing of a few million lionfish is going to prevent us from destroying ocean reefs with our own polluting activities. It seems that, like Cousteau before us, we haven't learned to first look in the mirror, take responsibility for our own actions, and try to change our own systemic behavior before scapegoating some other creature or people. In this regard, the clear impossibility of eradicating the lionfish should perhaps be seen as a sobering reflection of our own systemic failure as a supposedly intelligent species.