Mulling Over Culling | by Asiem Sanyal

To the majority of the world, Bermuda is one of two things – an exotic paradisiacal getaway, with pink sand-filled beaches to sink one’s toes into, and crystal clear turquoise waters to frolic in; or a place shrouded in mystery, situated in the heart of the Bermuda Triangle, where ships and aeroplanes disappear mysteriously, never to be seen again. The island, however, is a little bit of both. As any ecologist will tell you, beauty and deadliness manifest in a form not readily visible at the surface. To be able to see this, one needs to dive some metres below the water.

Underwater Bermuda is a different world. Orbicella, Porites and Montastrea coral vie with each other to create a beautiful tapestry. Reef fish of various shapes, sizes and hues populate this habitat to create a vibrant ecosystem. Amidst the riot of colour, one suddenly glimpses what one is looking for. Red, white and black bands adorn its body, a sure signal of danger – in the animal kingdom, bright colours indicate a dangerous creature. Delicate and seemingly motionless fins gracefully keep it buoyant. Protruding from its body are various translucent spines, loaded with venom. This particular creature is a red lionfish (Pterois volitans), or, as some would prefer to call it, ‘the bane of Bermuda’.

Conducting underwater transects

Native to the Indo-Pacific, red lionfish have proliferated heavily in Caribbean waters, to the extent that they are now pests. Opinion is still divided on how their numbers have drastically increased – whether Hurricane Andrew destroyed an aquarium in 1992, releasing six lionfish into the water in Biscayne Bay (Florida), or lionfish were purposely discarded into the water by dissatisfied aquarium enthusiasts. Regardless, they now pose a serious threat to native Bermudian wildlife, by not only encroaching on their territory, but also preying on a multitude of fish species, thereby affecting food webs and causing unequal effects on fish populations (trophic cascades). Native organisms occupy distinct niches in the ecosystem, and having them usurped by lionfish can render these ecosystems unstable. Moreover, groupers, which are predators of lionfish, are commercially important species, and have been overfished, further contributing to the ballooning lionfish population.

Bermudians have adopted a novel approach to combat this menace in their waters. Nationals over the age of 16 and with a permit are allowed to spear-fish these creatures, culminating in a day- or two day-long tournament in June/July with the apt by-line – “Eat ‘Em to Beat ‘Em”. Being a marine biologist and attending a three week summer school in Bermuda on coral reef ecology provides me the perfect opportunity to witness this event first-hand.

Preparing the lionfish

Hosted at the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences (BIOS), the event is an exercise in conservation education. Invasive species pose a unique paradox in the conservational scheme of things – culling defies the very notion of conservation. However, in the case of Bermuda, it might well be the only way to stall, if not reduce the spread of lionfish. At the event, I see people selling lionfish-related merchandise, in a bid to create awareness about this species. On the morning of the event, a group of divers and eligible spear-fishers head out to sea to catch as many lionfish as they can, with a prize for the person with most catches. Men, women and children sporting event t-shirts begin to filter in. A live band plays Bermudian songs, even as the kitchen area is cleaned and prepared for when the divers return. Informational posters adorn posts and walls, telling people about the dangers of an exploding lionfish population, and cautioning them against keeping these fish as pets.

A resounding whoop goes around the area as the divers’ boats return. The caught lionfish are weighed, cleaned and their venomous spines carefully removed, all in public view. This is a delicate art, not unlike the Japanese fugu. The meat is then utilized for various dishes – ranging from ceviche to lionfish soup! As a non-Bermudian, I am not allowed to go out on the boats as I do not possess a licence, but I most certainly am able to reap the benefits of the divers’ hard work.

Everybody enjoys the food, but the real purpose of the event extends far beyond the taste of lionfish meat – to enthuse people about conserving native wildlife. As people leave the venue, I hear them discussing the demerits of the growing lionfish population in their waters. Children are part of this discussion, which is just as well, seeing as they are the next generation of custodians of their island’s native biodiversity. Invasive species are often a consequence of our actions, and we need to take responsibility for halting their spread, before they cause irrevocable damage to the delicate balance of our ecosystems.

About the Entry

Asiem Sanyal

Indian marine biologist. Itinerant. Intermittent writer. Islander-at-heart. Incurable bibliophile.

  • Site name | Coming soon!
  • Why should someone visit your site? My site hopes to showcase my personal experiences with wildlife around the world (as a marine biologist), whilst simultaneously highlighting conservation concerns to people who might not engage with these ideas and discussions on a regular basis.
  • Entry TitleMulling Over Culling
  • Entry Number | 76

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