The flamboyant lionfish, or pterois volitans, is a nocturnal hunter that seems to devour everything in its path. Native to the Indo-Pacific, the lionfish is fairly new to the Caribbean, where it has no natural predators, reproduces at the rate of 30,000 eggs every four days and gorges on up to 30 fry and fingerling an hour. Snappers, lobsters and other local species hardly stand a chance against this ravenous horde, which puts the ecology of reefs at risk. Also endangered is the livelihood of fishers in Caribbean enclaves. IAF grantee partners in the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica and Mexico have been working to reduce the numbers of these invaders at the top of the local aquatic food chain, so that the diversity of Caribbean ecosystems is protected from their voracious appetite and the sea continues to sustain fishers. “It will take a concerted effort across territorial waters to control the lionfish,” said Marcy Kelley, the IAF’s managing director of grantmaking. “The IAF hopes to support grassroots initiatives in every country of the Caribbean Basin”
The Nemo effect
In the Disney animated hit “Finding Nemo,” the title character, a little clown fish that inhabits Australia’s coral reefs, is scooped up by a diver eventually to live in an aquarium decorating the dental offices of “P. Sherman, 42 Wallaby Way, Sydney.” Nemo’s father spends most of the movie trying to find his offspring and bring him home. In the end, Nemo is flushed down the toilet back into the ocean where he is reunited with his father.
While the plumbing was the conduit to Nemo’s salvation on screen, in real life releasing tropical fish into the ocean, now known as “the Nemo effect,” can seriously endanger marine wildlife. Biologists believe the Nemo effect led to the introduction of the pez león, or lionfish, in the crystalline waters of the Caribbean. Unknown in the Atlantic before the 1980s, the lionfish made its appearance en force in the coral reefs of the Dominican Republic’s marine protected area of La Caleta in 2011, “de la noche a la mañana,” according to local fisherman Gregorio “Kikito” Batista―“overnight.” La Caleta, just east of Santo Domingo, the capital city, is home to Cooperativa de Pescadores y Prestadores de Servicios Turísticos de La Caleta (COOPRESCA) that works with IAF grantee partner Reef Check Dominican Republic. Prompted by the desire to keep their economic options open for the long term, COOPRESCA’s members had themselves designated La Caleta a “no-take zone,” moving their fishing beyond its boundaries and offering services to tourists as an alternate source of income. Protecting native wildlife, they reasoned, would assure the catch for the future and would attract divers and snorkelers.
But the lionfish put that plan at risk as it gobbled up tropical fish, larvae, crustaceans and other sea creatures at an alarming rate. According to Rubén Torres, Reef Check’s director, in addition to having no predators or diseases in its new habitat, the lionfish proliferates because native species haven’t evolved the mechanisms to detect it as an enemy. Devouring way more of these easy pickings than it requires to survive has made the lionfish, said Torres, “the only species of fish that is clinically obese.”
In check in the DR
That corpulence ended up being a boon for the fishers in COOPRESCA. “The first time we caught lionfish in our nets, we just gave them away,” said Rafael “Bronco” García. But then they discovered that the fish was delicious. In 2012, Reef Check and COOPRESCA, in collaboration with the International Coral Reef Initiative’s Regional Lionfish Committee and Pagés BBDO, a public relations firm, embarked on a plan to generate a demand for this seafood that would give fishers an incentive to catch lionfish for a most efficient predator: homo sapien.
As COOPRESCA’s fishers were among the first in the Dominican Republic to market lionfish, they had to convince Dominicans to eat it. Many people believe the lionfish is poisonous, and its protective dorsal spines do contain venom, but the flesh is perfectly safe for human consumption. To change the perception, Reef Check and COOPRESCA launched “Cómete un león” [Eat a lion], targeting supermarkets, restaurants and consumers. Soon the lionfish provided grist for news stories, a photo for the cover of Gastroteca magazine and a new item on the menu for Santo Domingo’s finest restaurants─the vaunted Vesuvio Malecón, Mitre, Travesías, Asia Mía and El Agave, among others. Some of the capital’s best chefs were showcasing it in original recipes. Reef Check expanded its campaign to the rest of the island.
The lionfish resulted in an unexpected benefit for COOPRESCA: its first successful effort to sell a product as a cooperative. By mid-2012 the fishers of COOPRESCA were supplying 100 pounds a month to restaurants and supermarkets, a reason the catch plummeted from between 70 and 80 fish a day to just two or three. Essentially the species is under control―for now, at least within La Caleta. Meanwhile, the work of Reef Check and COOPRESCA has inspired other Dominican communities, producing a similar decline in the lionfish population. The fishers of COOPRESCA regret the corresponding loss of income, but, said Kikito, “The future is in tourism.” The decrease in lionfish means an increase in other species and that diversity draws visitors, ultimately a more reliable source of income. For more about COOPRESCA’s campaign and the attractions of La Caleta, visit http://reefcheckdr.org/ and view “videos RCDR online.”
Tico fishers in the fray
In August 2104, the IAF officially committed $135,000 to Asociación de Pescadores Artesanales del Caribe Sur (ASOPACS), a new organization on the southern coast of Costa Rica, for its three-year effort to improve the quality of life for its fishers and preserve the local marine ecosystem. That meant controlling the lionfish, which the fishers were already trying to do via their association with the University of Costa Rica and a small grant from the United Nations Development Programme.
To combat the invader, ASOPACS uses nasas, the traditional traps that its fishers build from wood and wire. To date, they estimate having placed nearly 300 nasas over some 30 square kilometers, which they check every three days one by one, a process that takes seven hours. Like their Dominican counterparts, ASOPACS’ fishers had no idea that the lionfish was edible and initially tossed them as trash. Today they are weighed, measured and packed for delivery to local restaurants, a market that has motivated fishers who were not using nasas to build them and has prompted ASOPACS to study the feasibility of selling in San José.
ASOPACS has harvested thousands of fish since entering the fray and the fishers take advantage of every opportunity to call attention to the campaign. Its visibility got a boost when Luis Guillermo Solís, president of Costa Rica, visited and was photographed pulling lionfish from a nasa. The Costa Rican Ministry of Environment has been recruited to the cause, which spearheaded the creation of the Ministry’s National Commission for the Management and Control of Lionfish in Costa Rica. The fishers themselves have traveled to strategy sessions in Cuba, Panama and the United States and have contributed to efforts conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) of the U.S. Department of Commerce. “We can only address this problem together,” said José Ugalde, who manages the project. “We thank all the collaborators.” These include community residents who compete in ASOPACS’ annual fishing tournament and its monthly five-hour dives to hunt lionfish with harpoons. To learn more, email the fishers at email@example.com or visit http://www.facebook.com/AsociacionDePescadoresDelCaribeSur.
Predators―from lenders to lionfish
“We have to recognize that [when it comes to the lionfish] the fishers of this cooperative were pioneers in taking responsibility,” said Eduardo Pérez Catzin, president of Sociedad Cooperativa de Producción Pesquera Cozumel (SCPPC) located on the island off Mexico’s Yucutan Peninsula. Pérez Catzim is no stranger to challenges. When he was first elected to head it in 1995, the cooperative was in the thrall of predatory lenders. His austere approach to leadership had the cooperative debt-free within three years, but at the cost of a reduction in membership from which SCPPC is now recovering.
SCPPC has benefited from concessions granted by the Mexican government to fish in Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve and the National Reef Park of Cozumel—areas rich in coral reefs and other aquatic life. The use of scuba equipment is generally prohibited in the concession and the fishers dive to depths of some 10 to 15 meters without it to harvest most of their annual catch of some 25 tons of lobsters, retrieving them one by one from concrete structures built to mimic the crevices where the crustaceans burrow. To assure the sustainability of stocks, they release any specimen measuring under 13.5 centimeters and refrain from fishing during the breeding season that extends from March to July. They also have a long-standing ban on nets that, if they used them, would ensnare dolphins, sea turtles and manta rays as bycatch. SCPPC’s environmental stewardship has been recognized with an award from Mexico’s Secretariat for Environment and Natural Resources.
In 2007, SCPPC was among the six cooperatives that joined forces with IAF grantee partner Comunidad y Biodiversidad (COBI) to develop the skills necessary to track and measure fish and lobster stocks and recover species and fish populations via the designation of a no-take zone. The participants were also worried about illegal fishing and the pressures of tourism on an industrial scale. To those concerns has been added the need to control the lionfish, whose presence in the concession the fishers and COBI staff had witnessed as early as 2005. By 2009, when the Mexican government warned of the threat to fish stocks, the lionfish was already voraciously consuming juvenile lobsters in SCPPC’s structures. But, commented Pérez Catzin, “Where the government perceived a risk, we sensed an opportunity.”
Like other fishing communities struggling to control the lionfish, SCPPC decided to make a meal out of it. “At first there was not a lot of demand,” Pérez Catzin and sales fell short of expenses. With COBI’s support, SCPPC launched tastings in Cancún and Playa del Carmen and slowly the public came to accept it. Lionfish is on the menu in SCPPC’s restaurant and other facilities on the island, in Mexico City and the United States, which has raised the price, benefiting other cooperatives on the Yucután Peninsula as well as SCPPC.
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