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Lionfish Shortage Spurs Blacktip Island Fish Farm

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Local aquaculture enthusiasts hope their plan to raise lionfish in inland ponds will solve the lionfish shortage at island restaurants. (photo courtesy of George Graysby)

A shortage of invasive Indo-Pacific lionfish on Blacktip Island reefs has prompted local aquaculturists to launch a captive-breeding program this week to supply lionfish to island restaurants.

“We’re victims of our own success, really,” Blacktip Haven chef Jessie Catahoula said. “We put lionfish on the menu to encourage scuba divers to cull them off the reefs. The cullers did such a good job, there’s no lionfish left.

“Problem is, we’ve marketed the hell out of fresh lionfish tacos, ceviche, medallions, you name it,” Catahoula said. “Tourists come here expecting lionfish, and boy, do they get hacked off when we don’t have any. Flying the meat in from the big island’s killing our bottom line. Thankfully the fish nerds stepped in.”

Resident aquarium enthusiasts floated the idea of a fish farm.

“The restaurants tried substituting other types of fish, but customers caught on,” George Graysby said. “Captive breeding was the only viable solution. We have lots of aquariums, so this isn’t really that big of a jump.

“We still push culling and conservation and all, but going forward all the lionfish served on Blacktip will be farm raised,” Graysby said. “Farm-to-table lionfish, if you will. And we’re working on genetically modifying them, too, to make them venom-less. And bigger.”

Experts say the plan will boost the small Caribbean island’s economy.

“Lionfish is set to be the new tilapia,” Tiperon University-Blacktip economics professor Sally Port said. “Digging the ponds is already keeping two people employed full time. And once the place is up and running, it’ll need a full-time staff to maintain it.

“It’ll be six months before the first fish are ready for harvesting, but at that point, the process will be self sustaining,” Port said. “George and Belinda are starting the fry in aquariums this week and will transfer them to the ponds as soon as, well, as soon as the ponds are completed.”

Island environmentalists cautioned about the project’s potential downside.

“We’ve spent so much time and energy getting rid of these invasive pests, now George’s actively breeding as many of them as he can?” Harry Pickett said. “What happens when a big storm washes thousands of lionfish onto the reefs?

“They’ll wipe out the native reef fish in no time,” Pickett said. “We’ll be worse off than before,” Pickett said. “This is an ecological disaster waiting to happen, never mind the stink a farm like that’ll create.”

Farm backers brushed aside such worries.

“We’re digging the farm way inland where it’s safe from any storm surge,” Belinda Graysby said. “And it’s up by the Tailspinner bar where it won’t bother anyone. And even if it does, if the booby pond stink doesn’t scare people away the smell of a fish farm won’t, either.

“Worst case, if a big hurricane does flood the ponds, well, we’ve got an island full of trained cullers who can clear the reefs in no time,” she said. “Either way, the restaurants’ll get their fish.”

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Blacktip Island Cullers Will Hunt Human ‘Lionfish’ Saturday


Eagle Ray Divers divemaster Lee Helm, in a semi-closed circuit rebreather, practices swimming away as fast as he can Thursday in a warm up for Saturday’s Sons and Daughters of the Reef Mock Lionfish Hunt on Blacktip Island’s west coast. (photo courtesy of Peter Southwood)

In response to animal rights protests, Blacktip Island’s Sons and Daughters of the Reef hunt club will substitute a local divemaster for a lionfish in their inaugural Mock Lionfish Cull for charity Saturday afternoon on the island’s west side.

“More and more clubs worldwide are doing these mock hunts,” said S&DR Master-of-Fish Gage Hoase. “The prey, usually a fox, is replaced with a human, and the hunters still get a great chase.

“This cull’ll keep the fish huggers happy and draw good press,” Hoase said. “Plus, truth be told, we’re running out of lionfish on Blacktip. People are spearing and eating so many of them.”

Club officers selected the local divemaster with the most customer complaints during the past year as the Designated Lionfish.

“We’re sticking Lee Helm in a lionfish suit and dropping him on the reef,” S&DR Huntsperson-at-Arms Alison Diesel said. “We’ll give him five minutes, then turn the cullers loose with their spears.

“It’s nowhere near as harsh as it sounds,” Diesel added. “Lee’ll have a rebreather, so bubbles won’t give him away. And a Kevlar suit that’ll turn just about any spear point. Or so we’re told.”

Local fish rights activists say the switch to human prey, while not a perfect solution, is a step in the right direction.

“If the Designated Lionfish is human, and sort-of volunteers, we have no problem with that,” Society for Providing Lionfish-Appropriate Training president Palometa Fischer said. “Ideally, though, they’d jab him with real lionfish spines to make him really feel persecuted.”

Lionfish stand-in Lee Helm expressed reservations.

“There’s no ‘volunteer’ to it,” Helm said. “They just held me down and jammed that bloody costume on me. Someone – Marina, I’ll wager – even speared my neck ‘by accident.’

“The only choice I have is to jump in on my own, properly weighted, or be tossed in with 40 pounds duct-taped to me,” Helm said. “These people are out for blood.”

Hunt club members say the vote for Helm was unanimous.

“Lee’s an obnoxious little git that pisses off everyone, staff and guests alike,” said culler Marina DeLow. “We’re all looking forward for the chance to prang him good, point-blank.”

Other echoed the sentiment.

“If the suit doesn’t stop a spear or two, well, it couldn’t happen to a more deserving guy,” said culler Casey Piper. “You can’t spear Lee enough, really.”

Hunt organizers expect a record 35-40 cullers to participate.

“There’re members with real grudges against Lee,” Hoase said. “We’ve warned everyone not to aim for exposed skin, but you never know what’ll happen in the heat of the hunt. We’ll have the nurse standing by. And lots of bandages.

“On the up side, we’ve never had a turnout this big,” Hoase said. “We may make Lee our permanent Designated Lionfish. Probably best to put it to a vote, though.”

Proceeds from the hunt go to the Coral Reef Protection Fund.

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Lionfish Shortage Sparks Blacktip Island Captive Breeding Program

Common Lionfish

An invasive Indo-Pacific lionfish rests on the bottom of Blacktip Island’s new captive breeding pond Thursday afternoon. (photo courtesy of Daniel Dietrich)


A lionfish scarcity on Blacktip Island reefs has spurred local entrepreneurs to start a lionfish captive breeding program to supply the island’s restaurants. The facility, unveiled Thursday, is the first aquaculture program of its kind in the Caribbean.

“For years we’ve culled the hell out of lionfish to save the reef,” said Jay Valve, the program’s creator. “Local chefs put lionfish on their menus to encourage culling. Lionfish fingers, tacos, soufflés, you name it. It’s become an island staple.

“The cullers were so good, though, now there’s not enough lionfish to go around,” Valve said. “Both restaurants were going to have to take lionfish off their menus, or use dodgy substitutes.”

Island authorities say the shortage caused a public health risk.

“There’s a cutthroat black market for lionfish meat – real and fake,” Island Police Constable Rafe Marquette said. “Yobbos are selling parrotfish, day-old land crab, you name it, as lionfish. The clinic’s full of sick tourists. A supply of farm-raised fish should put an end to that.”

To create a suitable facility, Valve enlisted the aid of local marine biologists.

“We’re using an abandoned 20,000-gallon cistern out back of Sandy Bottoms Beach Resort,” said lead scientist Peachy Bottoms. “It’s the only place on Blacktip big enough. We tried doing it in the resort pool, but there were a couple of ugly incidents with small children. And a cat.

“The real trick was getting them to breed,” Bottoms said. “They’re nocturnal pelagic spawners, so we had to set up mirrors and video screens to simulate the open ocean. And a disco ball to simulate a full moon.”

Animal welfare groups, however, oppose the farm.

“These genetically-modified fish are raised in crowded, filthy conditions,” said Harry Pickett, president of Blacktip’s People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals chapter. “Instead of the natural joys of seeing coral or hunting their own prey, they spend their lives in total confinement from the moment they hatch until the instant they’re slaughtered.”

The program’s creators say the fish are better off than their wild counterparts.

“Our lionfish have it made,” Valve said. “They have no predators, besides us, and we raise them free of ocean pollutants. We don’t use hormones or antibiotics or free-radical gluten like other fish farms, either.

“They get a nutrient-rich diet of wet and dry cat food,” Valve said. “And Oreos. It speeds their growth and gives the flesh a fresh, sweet flavor.”

Local businesses are jumping on the aquaculture bandwagon despite the P.E.T.A. protests.

“We’re building an interactive theme park around the place,” said resort owner Sandy Bottoms. “Calling it ‘Lionfish World.’ Gonna have lionfish feeding pools, lionfish petting pools, Kevlar glove rentals and the chance to pick out which fish you want speared for dinner.”

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Protestors Disrupt Blacktip Island’s Spring Lionfish Hunt

One of the invasive Indo-Pacific lionfish run to ground in last spring’s Hunting of the Lionfish.

One of the invasive Indo-Pacific lionfish run to ground in last spring’s Hunting of the Lionfish.

Animal rights activists converged on Blacktip Island Friday to protest the Caribbean island’s traditional spring Hunting of the Lionfish.

“These yahoos have turned population control into a blood sport,” Blacktip Island People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals president Harry Pickett said. “Lionfish are part of the ecosystem now, like it or not, and these barbarians are inflicting unnecessary suffering for the sake of entertainment.”

Hunt organizers rushed to defend the Hunt as a means to combat the invasive red lionfish that have overwhelmed Blacktip Island’s reefs.

“It’s not barbaric, it’s pest control,” Hunt Master Jay Valve said. “Lionfish are vermin. If they eat all our reef fish, what happens to our tourism product?”

“The Hunt maximizes limited resources,” said Red Reynard, the Hunt’s Master of the Grouper. “There were too many lionfish and not enough divers, or bottom time, to keep them in check.

“We turned the tables by importing specially-trained English scent-groupers to chase them down,” Reynard said. “We loose the grouper, have our whippers-in shoo them in the right direction, and the hunters follow on underwater scooters, gigging any stripeys that go to ground.”

The use of grouper draws the most criticism.

“Proper wildlife management procedure is to simply spear the lionfish, one by one, not chase them across the reef and let big fish tear them to shreds,” PETA’s Pickett said.

Other opponents leveled harsher criticism.

“The Hunt is morally wrong,” Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Piscines member Edwin Chub said. “Lionfish have a right to life, just as any other fish. And these allegedly-trained grouper are indiscriminate. They kill parrotfish, squirrelfish, anything that doesn’t get out of their way fast enough.”

Island authorities are urging caution from protestors and hunters after an attempt to disrupt last year’s hunt went awry.

“The SPCP people dressed as lionfish, rubbed fish guts all over themselves, then scuba dived through the middle of the chase,” Island Police Constable Rafe Marquette said. “It was mayhem, with chunks of flesh and lionfish costume flying everywhere.

“The hunters made it worse, goading on the grouper with those underwater horns hooked up to power inflators.”

“We were lawfully monitoring the Hunt for animal cruelty,” Chub said. “Our attorneys are still pursuing aggravated assault charges.”

“Those fish hippies had it coming,” Reynard said, “but it was frightening to see what a pack of hunting grouper can do to an unsuspecting diver. The same will happen this year, too, if they vex us again.”

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Blacktip Island Resort Launches Lionfish Spa

A free-range Indo-Pacific lionfish readies for a day’s work at Blacktip Haven’s new Lionfish Beauty Spa. (photo courtesy of Paula Whitfield)

A free-range Indo-Pacific lionfish readies for a day’s work at Blacktip Haven’s new Lionfish Beauty Spa. (photo courtesy of Paula Whitfield)

Blacktip Haven resort will open the Lionfish Beauty Spa this weekend as part of the resort’s continuing effort to combat the invasive Indo-Pacific lionfish overwhelming the Caribbean island’s reefs.

“Other resorts encourage scuba divers to hunt lionfish and kill them,” Blacktip Haven owner Elena Havens said. “They serve lionfish for breakfast, lunch and dinner. But karma’s a harsh mistress, even on the piscine level. Our goal’s to keep lionfish from destroying the reefs without us becoming killers.

“This spa lets us welcome lionfish as part of the solution instead of demonizing them. We can’t beat them and we won’t kill them, so we’re joining with them.”

Spa patrons will be able to submerge their hands, feet, or entire bodies in specially designed lionfish pools, where the voracious predators will eat any dry or damaged skin.

“Whether it’s calloused feet, chapped lips, or a bad outbreak of psoriasis, these lionfish will work wonders for you,” Blacktip Haven masseuse Jessie Catahoula said. “It’s a mani-pedi and so much more!”

“I wish I’d thought of it,” said Blacktip Island Chamber of Commerce president and Club Scuba Doo owner Ham Pilchard. “You see spas like this in Europe, but with minnows. It took someone with Elena’s special vision to adapt that to Blacktip.”

Local environmentalists are supportive as well.

“No lionfish are harmed in the spa, and the pools are open to the sea so the fish can come and go as they please,” Blacktip Island PETA head Harry Pickett said. “Elena also makes sure the fish get regular rest periods, and at least one day off per week to rejuvenate.”

As an added benefit to customers, the spa will also use lionfish venom as a skin-tightening agent.

“The toxin in their dorsal spines is chemically similar to Botox, and renders similar results,” local marine biologist Joey Pompano said. “It’s uncanny.”

“One spine poke in the cheek and you look years younger for the next three, four weeks,” Catahoula said. “Plus, it’s all natural, 100% organic and gluten free.

“The idea may sound fishy,” Catahoula said, “but the results speak for themselves.”

The spa plans to explore additional uses for the lionfish.

“On the molecular level, lionfish toxin’s structurally quite similar to Viagra,” Havens said. “That could open up a whole new line of spa treatment, but no one’s had the courage to put that to the test. Yet.”

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Blacktip Island Bank Robbery Ends in High-Speed Chase

Dermott Bottoms’ photo of Blacktip Island’s bank robbers speeding past. (Photo courtesy Dermott Bottoms)

Dermott Bottoms’ photo of Blacktip Island’s bank robbers speeding past. (Photo courtesy Dermott Bottoms)

An armed robbery at the Blacktip Island Community Bank was foiled Thursday morning due to the quick action of several of the Caribbean island’s residents.

“They busted through the door in plastic ThunderCat masks, waving lionfish spears,” bank manager and teller Penny Argent said. “Said they’d gig me if I didn’t give them all the cash.

“We didn’t have any cash. We never do,” Argent said. “So Lion-O cocked a spear on me, cable-tied me to the desk while Tygra grabbed all our calendars and Cheetara snagged a big box of our promo ink pens. Then they tore out of here like someone set the dogs on them.”

Blacktip Island’s police constable was alerted after locals became suspicious of a speeding automobile.

“Seen that same car fly past three times, I knew something was up,” Dermott Bottoms said. “Me and James Conlee was outside the bank having a breakfast beer when we seen it go by. Then again. And again. That’s when we called Rafe.”

“The robbers were off-islanders who apparently didn’t realize Blacktip Island only has two roads,” Island Police Constable Rafe Marquette said. “They went around the island three times before we realized it, then it took me four more laps to catch them.

“I might still be chasing them if they hadn’t taken a land crab claw to the left front tire. That crab’s the one deserves the accolades.”

No one other than the crab was hurt in the incident.

Authorities have not released the suspects’ names, though the police report noted numerous calendars, pens and three pole spears were recovered from the suspects’ car.

The robbery has community leaders are concerned.

“This goes to show Blacktip’s not a sleepy little island anymore,” outgoing mayor Jack Cobia said. “Folks are taking their keys out of their vehicles at night now. Some are even locking their house doors. It’s fearsome what this island’s coming to.”

Island business owners disagreed.

“The nervous nellies are overreacting to one isolated incident,” Eagle Ray Cove owner Rich Skerritt said. “That kind of talk’ll just scare away tourists, then where’ll we be? Tourism’s Blacktip Island’s biggest industry. Hell, it’s our only industry.”

Meanwhile, the bank assured account holders their saving are safe.

“We’ve installed security glass at the teller’s desk, and nets we can drop from the ceiling,” the bank’s Argent said. “The lobby floor’s also a trapdoor now, covering a big tank of lionfish. Any would-be robber dodges the nets, sploosh, they fall in and they’ll wish they’d never even thought about bank robbery.”

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Scuba Hunt Club Primed for Lionfish Season

Red lionfish, native to the Indo-Pacific region, have overrun Caribbean reefs in the past decade. Cullers hope rifles will prove more efficient than spears.

Red lionfish, native to the Indo-Pacific region, have overrun Caribbean reefs in the past decade. Cullers hope rifles will prove more efficient than spears.

Blacktip Island’s Scuba Hunt Club will kick off lionfish season this weekend with an underwater safari along the Caribbean island’s west coast. Club members aim to cull as many of the non-native pests as possible with newly-developed underwater rifles.

The Tiperon Islands Department of Natural Resources instituted the hunting season as part of the effort to eradicate the invasive Indo-Pacific fish devastating the islands’ reefs.

“Seven years ago we put a firm quota system in place,” the DNR’s Noddy Bolin said. “Licensed hunters are allowed to cull as many lionfish as they can, with whatever device they can find.”

“We’ve used nets, clubs and spears,” hunt club president B.C. Flote said. “It’s been pretty piecemeal, though, with folks getting what fish they could, but having to leave a lot behind.”

The recent invention of an underwater lionfish rifle – a specially-adapted .308 caliber sealed for underwater use and chambered for an ultra-high velocity round to compensate for water’s density – has made this year’s safari possible. The rifles are fitted with underwater scopes that correct for light refraction at depth.

“Spearing’s fun, sure,” said divemaster Gage Hoase. “But with the spears, you can only get a dozen or so before your air runs out. And the fish duck back in the coral where you can’t get them.

“With these rifles, we can pop hundreds in one dive. It’s not elegant, but it’s effective. And still fun. We can take down a stripey from 40, 50 feet away, no matter how they hide.”

The club hopes the safari concept will allow it to cleanse entire sections of the reef.

“We’re using beaters and baggers to streamline the process,” B.C. Flote said. “Beaters’ll fan out over the reef, whacking their tank bangers to flush the lionfish from the tall sea grass, drive them into killing zones where the hunters can shoot them. The fish, not the beaters.

“Then once a fish is shot, baggers’ll scoot in and grab the carcasses so the hunters can concentrate on shot count and quality. That’s the dicey part. Wounded lionfish can be ferocious. Lots of good hunters’ve been spined that way. They got special gloves this season. And orange wetsuits.”

“We tried using grouper as underwater retrievers instead,” Gage Hoase said. “But the grouper just kept eating the fish.”

Blacktip Island’s PETA chapter has filed a formal protest against the hunt.

“This is piscine genocide, pure and simple,” said PETA head Harry Pickett. “‘Cull’ is just another word for ‘murder.’ The ecosystem has changed. Lionfish are the dominant species on the reef now, with no natural predators. We have to embrace that. Embrace them.”

“Those suckers’ll have plenty of predators come Saturday morning,” the hunt club’s Flote said. “And us hunt club folks are as natural as it gets.”

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Blacktip Islanders Catapult Culled Lionfish For Charity

Freshly-speared lionfish ready to be catapulted into Blacktip Island’s community garden.

Freshly-speared lionfish ready to be catapulted into Blacktip Island’s community garden.

As part of the fight against invasive Indo-Pacific lionfish devastating Caribbean reefs, the Blacktip Island Agricultural Society will stage its inaugural Spring Fling Lionfish-Tossing Tournament Saturday, with proceeds going to the island’s chapter of the Society for Creative Anachronism.

The event is part of broader lionfish control efforts throughout the Caribbean.

“Our reefs are under siege from lionfish,” event organizer Buddy Brunnez said. “It made sense to combine the cull with a Medieval siege engine-building contest. Community groups raise money for their team, hand-craft a catapult from supplies found on-island, then launch their catch into the community vegetable garden.”

Team members on scuba will have one hour to spear as many lionfish as possible. They will then report to the garden site for weigh-in, counting and flinging.

“It’s absolute genius,” Eagle Ray Cove general manager Mickey Smarr said. “We’re culling so many the damn things, we’re up to our ears in lionfish. We’re sick of eating them. So are the tourists. The restaurants are glutted. Using them for fertilizer is the perfect solution.”

“It’s spring, the time of rebirth and renewal,” Agriculture Society president Marcia Seagroves said. “These lionfish will bind us all, via the vegetables we eat, to that ancient cycle of life and death. We’ll plow them into pulp to make sure they’re fully integrated in that cycle.”

“Any pre-gunpowder era flinging device is acceptable,” Brunnez said. “Most teams are going with simple onager-style catapults. Trebuchets are the top of the line, for payload, accuracy and old-fashioned esthetics. But they take a bit of know-how to get right.”

“We had to scrap our trebuchet,” said Val Schrader, Sandy Bottoms Resort team captain. “It generated so much force the lionfish were pretty much vaporized when we released the counterweight. It was beautiful from a distance, but the folks manning the sling weren’t too happy.”

“We’ve built a bamboo ballista based on an image from the Bayeux Tapestry,” said Blacktip Haven team member and island SCA president Jessie Catahoula. “Going for accuracy on multiple shots instead of putting all our fish in one sling, so to speak.”

The contest is not without its hazards, however.

“We’re making doubly-sure we clear the garden area of spectators after little Jimmy Cottonwick got impaled during a trial fling yesterday,” Brunnez said. “He was pulling weeds and took three lionfish to the back and one to the thigh. They’re still picking spines out of him.”

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