Deepwater Lionfish SurveyOctober 20 2017
Lionfish are a non-native species of fish that are threatening reefs in the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean, and the Atlantic. One of the challenges facing researchers is the ability to observe their populations and effects in waters deeper than recreational diving limits. Training, coordinating, and equipping volunteers can go a long way in helping.
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Some more updates on our Florida trip!
Together with REEF.org, we were testing a Trident Underwater Drone to look for lionfish on the wreck of the Northern Light. The Northern Light sunk in a storm in 1930 and today is sitting in about 200ft/60m of water.
The objective of this dive was to look for invasive lionfish after the recent storms. The theory is that the hurricanes might have caused a displacement of lionfish. Due to her depth and being relatively exposed, the wreck is not dived by SCUBA divers very often and using a Trident Underwater Drone was perfect.
Right at the beginning of the dives, we were greeted by reef sharks, barracudas, and groupers. As for lionfish, we found 3 or 4 of them on the wreck, this was expected but everyone was relieved that we didn't see 100s of them.
Apologies for slow reporting, but let's get right back to where we left off.
When last we left our heroes they were rushing to catch the boat to survey deepwater targets to assist in data collection on lionfish. The original plan was to attend a workshop get some good intel before attempting anything in the field. Since we are still cutting and editing video from that dive, let's jump ahead (or back depending on how you look at it) to the lionfish workshop and some general background on the invasion, species in question, and important background details.
We met the good people at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission at DEMA. Their website is full of useful information and if you are gearing up to help out with this expedition or go on one of your own lionfish trips, I'd recommend heading there. To get you casual observers and landlubbers up to speed here are some quick facts:
Background on the Invasion
- First found in Dania Beach in 1985
- Suspected to be a result of the aquarium fish trade (60k Lionfish Imported Yearly to US)
- Can now be found nearly everywhere in the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, and Atlantic
Some Facts About Lionfish
- The current invasion has two species of Lionfish, Pterois volitans and P. miles
- They can tolerate a wide range of depths (1000ft to shallow mangroves)
- They can tolerate a wide range of temperatures (as low as 52F)
- Spines on their bodies are venomous
- Currently no significant predators in the affected regions
- Have been known to exceed 18 inches long but typically are less than 15 inches
This Is Bad Because
- Lionfish eat many native species reducing their biomass by 60% in 2 years (some areas up to 90%)
- Lionfish are becoming the most abundant fish in the area
- This invasion will impact the ecology and economy greatly
We arrived at the workshop at the Reef.org HQ at about 7pm. We were running a bit late and awkwardly shuffled into seats unoccupied by the 12 to 15 people who had gathered. There was a mix of biologists, fishermen, and volunteers. Most of them locals. The room was focused on Lad Akins, who stood before a projector showing a side-by-side of the infamous two species. The lionfish are some very tough fish to say the least. There's even one theory that since they came through the aquarium trade that only the toughest bastards survived the trip from live capture to eventual release and that they have bred a super-lionfish that are even tougher and more resilient than the native Indonesian individuals.
The workshop went into the extent and affects of the invasion. Gasps and shaking heads punctuated each slide. The bottom line -- this is the most dangerous marine invasion in the area and there's no way to stop it. So, sounds pretty bad, no? It's been hard to listen and see some of the data and not feel absolutely hopeless about the situation.
But it's not hopeless. There is a strong sense of stewardship and never-say-die attitude among the volunteers and workers we met. They are all quick to point out that the lionfish does have one predator in the region--us. There is no daily limit or commercial limit on lionfish. They can be collected by any technique that can be used on other species in the same areas. The workshop moved to talking about the different tools and techniques that can be used. We watched and practiced the use of Hawaiian slings, gloves, and collection tubes. Surprisingly the lionfish can be caught with a pair of hand nets quite easily.
Sadly, one thing humans are really good at is eating things into extinction. But, this might be one of the most effective things we can do. A fun article called "Eat the Enemy" has some more information.
Next, we are going to finish doing some editing and get you guys a short interview with Lad.
I got a call early this morning from Lad saying the weather was looking properly bad for the dates we picked for a potential deployment to test out Trident.
Long story short, we need to pack up, load the car, and drive to Key Largo right now if wanted to test out Trident on this trip.
Updates on our meetings at DEMA will have to wait as we are looking down some rough seas already.
Wish us luck!
Zack / Dominik / Pierre
The DEMA show in Orlando was indeed the perfect place to find what we were looking for--people who knew where and how anybody with an underwater robot and access to a boat can help. The first person I wanted to touch base with was Lad Atkins, the director of special projects at Reef.org. Before the show he and I had talked on the phone and came up with the idea to possibly use Trident for a deepwater survey. During one of the breaks I went over to their stall and got the low-down on how bad the problem with lionfish actually was. I had a great conversation with some of the volunteers and picked up this little guy for my girlfriend (see picture)
Lad invited us down to their headquarters in Key Largo to attend a collection and handling workshop where we could learn a lot more. The team and I are really looking forward to it. If you’re living around here you should definitely check this out.
My next stop was the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's stall. These are the guys who are on the frontlines of the invasion and where I got a ton of information that I will share soon but they did have an excellent book about what to do with the lionfish after you catch them (see picture).
My next post will be about what I learned at the workshop and some of the takeaways from the conversations with the FWCC’s representatives. At this time, however, I’d like to invite everyone who is in Florida to come out to the dive day we have planned in Riviera Beach, FL on Sunday 11/12.
We will be test flying the Trident beta unit that we want to use for these surveys and if you can make it, I’d love give you a chance to take control and see some of the amazing fish aggregation in the area.
Lastly, I realize it’s only a matter of time before I spell them loinfish so I’m going to get out ahead of that one and get it out of the way here.
All the best and looking forward to meeting all of you at the event!
Zack / Dominik / Pierre
The background on this expedition will be coming in a series of posts, and the rest of the team and I learn more about the lionfish infestation from experts and volunteers along our journey. For a brief primer on the problem and a terrifying time-lapse of sightings, head over to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commissions page here.
The plan as it is now is to get to know more about the groups of researchers, volunteers, and fishermen working to understand and confront this growing and devastating blight. I think a great place to do that will be to head to DEMA (Diving Equipment & Marketing Association) show in Orlando.
From there we are hoping to find out how to use our new Trident prototypes to help out.