Finding fish in the wrong places

I just got back from a trip to America and a quick jaunt to Abaco Island in the Bahamas to visit John Bruno and his team at work in the field. One of their projects is looking at the lionfish invasion in the Caribbean, something I’ve heard and read and talked a lot about. But I’d never seen a lionfish in the Caribbean for myself (mainly because I’ve not spent much time in the Caribbean lately). So I was absolutely expecting to encounter one in the Bahamas and yet it was a strange moment when I first spotted a familiar shape. Here was a beautiful fish that normally I’d be delighted to see decorating a reef in Malaysia or the Maldives. But this was a lionfish in the wrong place.

It was a little guy with dark pigmentation, almost black, hunched down low on a patch reef. And being sprung by a gang of marine scientists this fish was doomed. I knew we’d have to take it with us. I knew it didn’t belong, that its vital statistics will help advance understanding of how lionfish are fairing in their new, uninvited territory.

Call me a fish-hugging hippy but still I couldn’t help feeling a little bit sorry for it. Lionfish didn’t ask to come to the Caribbean. We can hardly blame them for their voracious appetites or their bountiful reproduction. They evolved far, far away and their instinct is to eat and make more lionfish. People put them in the wrong place and now scientists are busy trying to figure out how this huge ecological experiment will play out.

Divers and spear fishers are being encouraged to hunt lionfish across the Caribbean and I quite agree that this is a useful way of helping to curb the population and stem the damage they’re doing. It would be fantastic if this encouraged people to fish and eat fewer of the other fish in the Caribbean. But let’s not demonize the lionfish. People need to catch and kill them and yet we can still marvel at their beauty and appreciate them as a fascinating outcome of natural selection. The story that’s unfolding on Caribbean reefs is a lesson in what happens when humans meddle with the natural world, when we poke and prod at things we don’t fully understand, and the unexpected consequences that ripple out from seemingly small actions like keeping a fish in a tank. The problem of lionfish shouldn’t distract from the other threats to ocean life, all of them due to human actions, big and small.

A version of this post also appears on the Seamonster blog.

This gorgeous woodcut print is the work of Jenny Pope, one of my favourite printmakers. Lots of her art is available to buy on her website.

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