By Angelica Suris and Lauren Wallace
On May 20, 2019
Like many areas in the Caribbean, lionfish have invaded the coral reefs of Curaçao with no natural predators. In our dives in Curaçao, we would see this exotic, red looking fish hidden in the nooks and crannies of coral, under docks and buoys. We saw these a couple times and might have gotten a bit too close for my comfort just because we were extremely surprised to see them in the wild and see them in action. I specifically remember getting side tracked on our way back from a dive in Carmabi and seeing one hiding between the pillars of one of the docks. They are extremely distinct predators that are known for their venomous spines that are red, black and white. But, what makes lionfish unique is its impact to coral reefs and the diversity that surrounds it. Like many invasive species, they are extremely destructive to the environment because they have no natural predators. Because of this, lionfish overpopulate and reduce populations of native species by either eating them, taking their food source or their shelter. Second, their venomous spines protect largely protect them from local predators: if humans touch of their spines it can cause irritation, rash and burning sensations on the impacted area. This was always a constant precaution I would take while diving in Curaçao. I was always on the watch for lionfish so I could do my best not to touch it and risk injury. For marine biologists and environmental conservationists alike, reducing lionfish population in Caribbean reefs is a priority. Although it can be eaten raw, lionfish can be made to be just as tasty as any other fish you have ever eaten. If more people knew about how great this fish tastes, they would be helping the extreme population size of these fish in our reefs. Lionfish are interesting and dangerous predators people should be more aware of. With a lower population of these predators, our reefs will be in much better shape!
While it is unlikely that the population of lionfish will be completely eradicated, some residents of Curaçao have attempted to reduce their numbers by using them to turn a profit. Just like other fish, lionfish make a great meal when cleaned and prepared properly. But one resident has found a more creative way to use the lionfish she hunts: Lisette Keus has found out how she can use the fins and tail of lionfish to create jewelry. She catches lionfish by spear fishing and removes all the barbs to use in her jewelry. The remaining meat is not wasted and is sold to restaurants. Once removed, the barbs are still venomous until completely dried so she leaves them in the shade until they are dry enough to work with. Once they are ready, she cuts the fins and seals them with resin. She makes all kinds of jewelry including bracelets, earrings, and rings. The metal she uses in this jewelry is stainless steel. This has many benefits she explains, it is non-irritating, will not corrode in salt water, and is inexpensive. She wants to keep the cost of her products down. While I met her at the dive shop near Carmabi, I also visited her at her workshop in downtown Willemstad a few days later. While it is primarily a place for her to create jewelry, her workshop doubles as a store and museum. Along the wall were pictures and descriptions of how lionfish came to the Caribbean and how they have affected the populations native to the area. Her primary mission is to spread awareness of lionfish and their role on the reef. It seems like she has been successful as dive and souvenir shops all around Curacao sell her products. Being able to make a profit while helping restore the natural ecology of an area may be the key to helping ecosystems such as Curaçao’s reefs. It is innovators and entrepreneurs like Lisette that make a significant impact on reefs. Here is her website: http://lionfishcaribbean.com/
The authors of this blog are students enrolled in Tropical Marine Ecology and Conservation, field courses run in the Caribbean by the University of South Florida. In 2019 and 2021, the course went to the Carmabi research station in Curaçao and dived around the island over a 10-day period, for training and to carry out research projects. In 2018, the group went to Soufriere, Saint Lucia, and took part in various projects in partnership with the Soufriere Marine Management Association. In this blog, students will document their activities and how they relate to course material.