With no way to stop the predatory lionfish that have made their way to North Carolina waters, researchers at the Center for Coastal Fisheries and Habitat Research lab in Beaufort call for local divers to help curtail the invasion.
Debby Boyce slid into the waves off the coast of North Carolina and slowly swam to the yellow anchor rope leading down to the Rock Pile.
It was the summer of 2005, and she hadn’t been to her favorite dive spot for years, despite owning a SCUBA shop and spending her days talking up the diving off North Carolina’s coast. Her business had demanded much of her time. Discovery Diving grew from a tiny store on Beaufort’s main drag to a full-service shop and diving service in a sprawling old fish house overlooking Town Creek just north of the inlet.
About 26 miles southeast of the Beaufort Inlet, the Rock Pile benefits from an eddy that pushes warm water from the Gulf Stream around the reef, enabling colorful tropical fish to thrive. Boyce couldn’t wait to see big schools of purple reef fish and angels swarming over the rocks. She knew baby moray eels darted around the crevices and flounder hugged the white sand around the rocks.
With nets in hand to restock the massive aquarium that greets customers in her shop, she swam toward the Rock Pile. Slowly following the rope, she could feel her stress level drop with each kick. She looked forward to getting on the bottom and just sitting there. That was what she loved about diving. The peacefulness of just sitting on the sandy bottom and watching the fish around her.
But when Boyce got to the bottom, the beautiful schools of fish were gone. The Rock Pile — the most tropical place off the coast of North Carolina in diveable range — had gone from brilliant colors to barren. The symphony of sea life swirling around the rocks had been replaced by hundreds of lionfish.
For years, handfuls of the ravenous and venomous lionfish, which are natives of the western Pacific, had been seen off North Carolina’s Atlantic coast. But now, everywhere Boyce looked, she saw them.
Hundreds of them.
Kicking her way up the yellow anchor line again, Boyce was devastated. The ocean was her refuge, and she took it personally that lionfish were eating it up. Soon, she heard of other pristine dive sites almost absent of local marine life.
“Our love is the ocean. It would be like seeing a bunch of starving children. If you ever saw that, you’d have to do something,” Boyce says. “And that is what this is. You’re seeing a really negative thing happening, and since there is something we can do, we’d like to try.”
For her it was simple. Letting the lionfish go unchecked was out of the question. Because it’s almost impossible to catch lionfish with a hook and line, most people didn’t know about or understand the devastation. But divers did, and they could get down to the bottom and get them.
Using her shop’s newsletter, she sent out a call to arms to divers across the country, recruiting them for a series of “roundups” to capture and kill the lionfish. The call has morphed into a huge team effort between divers and scientists fighting a lionfish invasion.
“We get such enjoyment out of the ocean that we want to give back a little bit,” Boyce says. “We know the population growth is so huge; we know we won’t be able to get rid of them. All we hope to do is control the explosion to the point that it is not as devastating.”
The first lionfish was photographed off the North Carolina coast in August 2000. A popular saltwater aquarium fish, they are hard to miss with distinctive red, maroon, and white stripes and a huge fan-like pectoral fin and dorsal fins with long, venomous spines.
How the fish got to the southeastern United States is up for debate. Most accounts blame the invasion in part on a group of fish accidentally released from a home aquarium during Hurricane Andrew in 1992. But Dr. James Morris, an ecologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, says it is more likely that lionfish were probably released on purpose when people no longer wanted them in their aquariums because they grew too large.
Morris’s lab in Beaufort is the leading authority on the lionfish invasion in the United States. Its scientists have been working on the lionfish problem for nearly a decade.
The fish grow to as big as footballs on the east coast, slightly larger than their Asian brothers, because nothing is hunting them. Lionfish eat anything that gets near them, and they reproduce at a staggering rate. They reach maturity within two years and can eat fish half as large. The lionfish are so voracious, they will throw up food to make room for more.
Females reproduce year-round and can spawn 30,000 eggs every four days. Their eggs and larvae travel in currents south to the Caribbean islands and up the coast. Because they are tropical fish and sensitive to water temperature, they haven’t been seen in great numbers north of Hatteras where the water is too cold.
Lionfish spread from the Florida Keys and to the Caribbean’s coral reefs and wreaked havoc on the ecosystem by limiting the diversity found at places like the Rock Pile that once teemed with life.
“The more biodiversity, the healthier it is. When you have an invasion, the biomass changes,” Morris says.
North Carolina usually ranks as one of the top dive locations in the country. The state is known for providing divers with great wreck dives, including German World War II U-boats and a myriad of sea life from rays and sharks to tropical fish from the Gulf Stream.
“It is really phenomenal diving, but one of the big portions of it is being gobbled up,” Boyce says. “A whole environment that we’d been used to seeing is changing in a huge way.”
Discovery Diving is now ground zero for lionfish hunters in North Carolina. Boyce has about 30 divers who regularly hunt lionfish; plus, she recruits hunters from out of town.
Catch of the day
In July, the Northeast Wyoming Dive Club (N.E.W.D., for short) came down to Beaufort to slay some lionfish. After more than a day of delays, traffic, and several connecting flights, the divers shuffled into the upstairs classroom above Discovery Diving.
Steve Broadhurst, the dive safety officer at the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores, taught a short class on lionfish to the N.E.W.D. divers, who crowded around the mismatched tables and office chairs.
Sipping cold beer and eating slices of pizza, the Wyoming divers listened as Broadhurst walked them through the invasion. The map showed a few sightings, marked by red dots, near Florida in the late 1990s, but as the years ticked off, the red dots spread like chicken pox up the east coast.
“It’s a free-for-all out there right now,” Broadhurst says.
The plan was to dive to the Naeco, a tanker wreck about 45 miles from Cape Lookout. The hunters would dive to the bottom at about 130 feet and catch the lionfish that swarm around the wreck with long three-prong spears. Lionfish are easily approached.
“They are about the dumbest fish I’ve seen,” Broadhurst says. “I’ve stabbed one, and it fell off the spear but didn’t swim away. I swam up and stabbed it again.”
The divers will work in teams of two. One spears the fish. The other puts it in a mesh bag. Working in teams is important because it lowers the chances of brushing a lionfish’s spines. The venomous sting feels like a bee sting on steroids.
The hour-long presentation ended with a picture of a lionfish and “Eat Me” in yellow letters underneath. That is the ultimate goal for Boyce and her hunters. To turn lionfish into the catch of the day.
Once captured, the lionfish can be prepared like any other fish. Lionfish have received a warm reception from chefs and restaurants. Chefs in New York, Chicago, and Washington served lionfish caught during roundups last year. They taste like triggerfish or black sea bass.
“They are pretty tasty, and there is something satisfying about eating what you catch,” Broadhurst says.
The Wyoming divers left the meeting pumped. They just wanted to get out and kill some lionfish.
But sometimes just getting to the fish offshore is a chore in itself.
The hunt goes on
There are several obstacles stopping lionfish from becoming a commercial fish: The distance to the Gulf Stream. The depth. The fact there is no easy way to catch them en masse.
“For recreation divers, the people we’re catering to, it’s a pretty deep dive. We’re asking these people to tax themselves [beyond what is] recreation to go out there and work at 140 feet of water and catch these fish,” Boyce says. “We are sort of sitting on the fence here [between] something that really needs to be done and something [where] we don’t want anybody to get hurt.”
And sometimes, the seas have other plans.
The next morning, the Wyoming divers boarded the boat and started toward the Naeco. Less than an hour from shore, the waves started to hammer the hull, rolling the boat from side to side. One of the divers sat quietly by herself with a far-away look on her face. Minutes later, she was at the rail throwing up. Soon, she was joined by a half-dozen other seasick SCUBA cowboys. With the boat hours from the Naeco, the captain decided to call off the hunt.
Boyce was hoping to have lionfish on tables in the cities this summer. But the rough seas make it hard. The fact that the lionfish were so far off the coast is a good thing. A cold winter in 2010 and low water temperatures killed off a lot of the fish and forced them deeper and farther off the coast. But the cold is only a minor setback. Because the lionfish can reproduce quickly, it’s only a matter of time before they’ll be back in greater numbers.
And Boyce and her band of hunters will scramble back on their boats with spears ready. It’s more than just saving her business and North Carolina’s dive sites. It’s about preserving what made her fall in love with the ocean and what keeps her in sleepy Beaufort.
“The diving is just a means to get to there,” she says. “It’s not the end in itself. You can dive in a pool, but that wouldn’t be a wonderful experience. Anybody that comes on behind us is never going to experience what we’ve seen and experienced for years. Hopefully, someday it will be back to the way it was.”
Center for Coastal Fisheries and Habitat Research
Kevin Maurer is the Wilmington-based correspondent for The Associated Press. A graduate of Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, he has lived and worked in North Carolina since 2003.