Finding fish in the wrong place

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 and she’s promised me she will soon be blogging about lionfish. But first, here are my thoughts on seeing my first lionfish in the wrong place.

Before I arrived in Abaco I’d heard a lot about lionfish. I don’t remember when I first cottoned on to the fact that they had been released into the Caribbean and taken hold of reefs across the region, munching their way through the native fish that have no idea what to make of these poisonous predators. I was 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.

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