How to Catch a Jerk: Hunting the Lionfish

Why the name calling?

The closest literature got to calling a marine animal a jerk was Moby Dick, or The Whale (aptly named). And even in that fiction, Herman Melville portrays the horror fueled by the fanatic obsession of a madman. Man lost, nature won. A tragic ending, but a righteous one.

But Moby Dick, a sperm whale, was never an invasive species. And Captain Ahab was no innovator. That would have been a wholly different story.

So, when is it right to hold an animal morally culpable?
Never, really. Or maybe always. It depends on what you’re trying to achieve.

Bad dogs aren’t bad, just poorly treated. Killer-whales aren’t killers in the wild, but if kept in a bathtub for years any Shamu can turn psycho. The shark in Jaws was evidently dangerous. But dangerous by design doesn’t make it bad. Sharks are naturally designed as apex predators. They are noble animals and one of the oldest marine species. You’d think there would have been several biological iterations along the millennia. But sharks are one of the few species not to have undergone drastic biological evolution, and closely resemble their prehistoric ancestors. By definition, perfection cannot evolve.

Of course, the ocean has its fair share of creepy inhabitants. A lot of them. Giant squids, Angler fishes, glowing-slugs, zombie worms and a score of badass looking deep sea creatures that can give anyone nightmares. But they stay put in the deep dark. Their crime is being ugly, not vicious. Barring an impending jellyfish invasion, there’s not much to be worried about.

Now read the literature about invasive species. Read about the American Mink in Europe, or the Asian carp in the rivers of Illinois. Even in these scenarios the real villain is always man. No arguments there. Animal rights activists are the first to proclaim the innocence of the animal, and blame man for the injustice or relocation. Let’s forget the fact that ‘innocence’ is an equally subjective title. But overall it’s befitting and puts the onus back on ‘The Man’ to fix the problem.

The main takeaway is this: apart from Disney movies, anthropomorphizing animals is just silly. To claim they are good or evil is farcical. Even the antagonist portrayals in B-grade SyFy classics of radioactive spiders, elusive anacondas- need a human catalyst to provoke the impeding doom.

Irrespective, general truisms persist: a dog is good, cats are sinister geniuses and fish are stupid. Make a hardy note: these are culturally specific to Western ideals. In Iran- dogs are vile, cats are noble and fish are still stupid.

There have been notable sexual deviants in the seas: Male sea otters hump and drown baby seals, dolphins gang-rape females & Adelie Penguins indulge in necrophilia. Now all of these acts are human taboos- and therefore if animals indulge then they’re perverted hooligans. What’s next homosexual penguins? Let humanity push its own yardstick on beasts, let our ephemeral standards be the one by which nature be judged.

So we rightly call on this bullshit. Conscience, ethics, morality- this is all the mumbo jumbo of human beings imposed on other humans to maintain a ridiculously fragile social structure that doesn’t scare us. Since morality is a human construct, that should scuttle animals out of that purview. Fish are therefore free to be nihilists and live an existential life of godlessness.

Biology simply is. And all this naturalistic talk of pushing everything in nature as good is simplistic. And that very much being said- all traits, good and bad, by our own tainted views, should be considered when studying them.

But once in a while you will genuinely meet a universally acknowledged asshole. I am by no means a marine biologist, but I don’t need a degree to spot a jerk.

Shakespeare had said in Hamlet: For nothing is good or bad, but thinking makes it so. So if the asshole is in the eye of the beholder, let me introduce you to the Lionfish.

Enter the Asshole

The first clue: you’re never born an a-hole, you’re made one. Displacement, opportunity, and excess are all prime ingredients.

You should know this story by now. It’s about a reluctant character who’s at the wrong place at the wrong time who ends up as the villain. Invasive species are rather at the wrong place and the right time. The Lionfish aren’t horrendous where they reside natively. But having them out in the Western Atlantic and Caribbean, they have a diabolical plot charted out.

The tale of the Lionfish Invasion begins like all other science fiction parables. On a stormy night in the 90’s. Urban legend starts with Hurricane Andrew on the coast of Florida in 1992. A broken fish tank laid the foundation to what would become the most devastating invasive species of all time.

The Pterois is a native of the Indo-pacific. Pterois volitans and Pterois miles are native to sub-tropical and tropical regions from southern Japan and southern Korea to the east coast of Australia, Indonesia, Micronesia, French Polynesia and in the South Pacific Ocean. Popular as an aquarium fish for its vibrant colors. There are many names. The Lionfish, Butterfly cod in Australia, The Devil Firefish (pterois miles), and the Turkeyfish to name a few.

The Lionfish are excellent hunters who disorient prey with bubbles. The predators in our waters do recognize these foreign fish, and are wary of their venomous spines. Lionfish are also hostile and territorial. So far so good.

Now add a context of environment. What happens when some creatures reach environments they don’t belong to. No- this isn’t about the immigrant rights of invasive species, or the ridiculous-political anthropomorphizing Hitler would engage for rhetoric. This is purely biological. Natural environments provoke and influence biological stimuli. But even if we were to speak politically, there might be a slight tangent somewhere. I remember a discussion I had a few years ago with someone about how the weather of certain countries influenced cultural behaviors. Why people from tropical islands tend to be more relaxed and focused on the present (less to no war mongering, less focus on industrialized ambition), and people from harsher climates tend to be sturdier, scrappier and resilient types (I’ve met a few Siberians). Forget the larger environment, even its subset the weather has patterns which correlate with mood. There are several studies on the correlations between these patterns- but this article focuses on hunting the lionfish.

Human beings are the most invasive species of all time. So much so, that we hardly think we’re being invasive anywhere. As the first amongst species, we’re travelers and settlers, hunters and farmers, creators and destroyers. This ability to settle anywhere is a great feat. The reason it’s possible is because we can control our environment- not weather or nature- the environment. We wield this control aggressively and subdue fauna and flora without second thoughts. This control is the reason we as a species can travel any corner of the globe. We can force any environment to adapt to us- we can create temperatures we’re comfortable in, rooms which are hospitable, and nutrition which is acceptable. Fish don’t have that power. The environment will force species to evolve and adapt to their surroundings.

By now, there are multiple sightings of lionfish off the coast of Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Bahamas. From the East coast of the US, they’ve spread even more viciously around the vast coastal shores of Latin America. The situation will only get worse

Population desnities continue to increase in the invaded areas, resulting in a population boom of up to 700% in some areas between 2004 and 2008. That’s a population density in orders of magnitude greater than their native areas.

So what’s the problem?
Overfed, Oversexed and Everywhere.
The lionfish overeat prey, fuck and eat each other. Insert the adjective veraciously.

This is what the all knowing Wikipedia had to say:
“The population density of the invasive lionfish is increasing very quickly, and efforts are underway in several areas to bring it under control. However, to completely eradicate the lionfish from its new habitats seems unlikely. A study from 2010 using population modeling used data collected about the known life history of the lionfish inhabiting the Caribbean coral reefs to figure out the best means of eradication. The study showed that the most effective way to even maintain current lionfish population densities, at least 27% of the invasive adult populations would have to be killed monthly. The fact that lionfish are able to reproduce monthly throughout the entire year means that this is an effort that must be maintained monthly for the maintenance of current population densities.”
Read More.

In the Polynesian Islands, where the Lionfish are plenty and where predators recognize them there are natural checks and balances. They’re still a tough bunch: hostile in their reefs and extremely territorial- but in their natural ecosystem the damage they cause is contained in the rocky terrain.

When you work for the world’s only commercial lionfish supplier, you wonder why you’re working for the world’s only commercial supplier of something. Lionfish are one of the ocean’s rarest fish to catch. Whenever I’ve said that line people assume it’s because the fish somewhat elusive or rare. Far from the truth. It’s a paradox of plenty. They’re everywhere, killing off local delicacies like Grouper and Snapper, harming the reef, they’re in shallow waters and deep beds. Everywhere. But they are a royal pain to catch commercially.

So do they put up a huge fight like the Marlin or Permit-fish, or are they rare to find like your Bonefish? Neither. They just don’t care enough about traps.

Not only are they super-abundant, marine organizations have declared an indefinite green light on overfishing them in several coastal regions. Will we manage rid lionfish out of our Gulf and East-coast? Nope. That would be a happy ending. As in a marine biologist’s wet dream. This fish is going nowhere. Some scientists say that there has to be a staggering 300% of demand consumption every month to sustain and eradicate. Some fisherman try building new income streams from invasive species, but local distributors are wary of introducing them on the menu because they fear after the hype and marketing involved the species will be stabilized and off the menu. That doesn’t look likely for the lionfish.

Currently NOAA and REEF organize lionfish-derbies that are orchestrated periodically, so the population stays controlled in certain regions. It’s fun and educational. Let’s hope the novelty doesn’t run out, because the frequency for organizing them would have to increase to sustain the turbulent growth.

The National Invasive Species Information Center calls lionfish one of the the worst invasive species of all time. The damage they cause is staggering. Financially, it can affect about 3 billions USD annually.

Traditional methods of fishing by traps or lures don’t work. Actually, a better way of stating that is that the lionfish don’t respond to it. This restatement of the problem was very important to craft the solution. Currently, the only way Lionfish is caught is by spearfishing them. That’s extremely labor intensive and therefore pushes the price up. Spearfishing is a very low income level job. It’s not an efficient model when your competitors use nets that can circle the globe 3 times. Some suppliers said they had a problem with us using fishermen from Mexico. But if you know any professional American who spearfishes for a living (not a hobbyist), we’d be glad to hire him/her. The pay is so low and not worth the effort, that this job doesn’t even exist in the US. But we’re quite proud of the fair-wages our fisherman receive doing a fantastic job for their environment while sustaining their families.

The success some commercial-fisherman get in catching lionfish is as a byproduct. They’re inadvertent guests in lobster traps. Sometimes catches could be up to 10,000 tones through that route, but you’re just touching the surface. Lobster-traps would still work great on scale. But it relies on trial and error, and being lucky. One could argue that most fishing is done that way. But focussed hunting is what our main aim was and is. Accidental victories are not a sustainable business model, and neither good for the marine ecosystem.

Let’s enumerate the problem:

  1. They eat more than they need to eat.
    Researchers were alarmed at the fish caught in North Carolina. The lionfish were obese. Obese. That’s right. They ate 70 different species of marine life and then some more suffering fat-fish ailments.

  2. They fornicate a lot.
    Nothing intrinsically wrong with that but if you add in the other factors there’s a problem. The lionfish averages 2 million eggs a year, they reach sexual maturation when they’re about a year old and live over a decade to 15 years. Do the math.

  3. And they also eat each other.
    Given the problem, that’s a good sustainable feature. It also adds a dimension to their character study. 70 different species of prey fish they consume- yet they still act on cannibal impulses. Other animals show cannibalism when motivated by hunger or deliberate acts of aggression.

  4. Venomous Spines.
    It’s not potent enough to kill, but it’s a royal pain nonetheless. And just like for jellyfish, Warning-Signs have been popping across certain beaches. Soon swimming in the Caribbean will become next to impossible. University researchers have already documented their aggressive behavior towards divers and researchers, and being stung underwater is never an enticing proposition. They’re not as intimidating as a shark or dangerous as a herd of piranhas- but they’re unnecessarily there, in waters they don’t naturally belong. All this doesn’t make spearfishing any more enticing.

David Johnson was one of the first proponents of the “If you can’t beat ‘em, then eat ‘em” approach. This has been heartily followed and propagated by some of the most reputable marine organizations and universities across the country. There are derbies, lionfish cookbooks and everything else to motivate people to eat this delicious, healthy fish.

A Govt "Eat Lionfish" campaign at the Tucson MVD

But I’m sure the average reader hasn’t yet seen one on the menu recently.

The only excuse for the not seeing enough of the Lionfish is not the taste, price or supply. When you look at all the reasons, it all boils down to commercialization. It’s a pain to catch them in large amounts consistently.

Do they taste bad? On the contrary, our little fishing company got to provide lionfish in some of the best seafood restaurants and high-end sushi parlors in the country. Five stars hotels in Vegas order it. We’ve even catered at the Smithsonian Museum, Aspen Institute & Necker Island. They have a delicious and versatile taste; people have compared them to a long list of favorites like Snapper, Grouper, Tilapia, etc. But explaining taste by analogy doesn’t work- you ultimately have to try it.

So too expensive? No. I wish we did charge it higher. At $15/lb., it’s priced under Chilean Red Seabass, and around the same price tag as the pig-shit farmed Tillapia. But despite having high-profile clients, David decided to price the fish modestly because we need a more democratic price point to win this battle. You don’t want to make a lot of profits on low volume, your mission is to get as much of this fish out of the water.

Could the FDA have scared us from eating them? In 2011, FDA announced some lionfish species have ciguatera poisoning. That sounds bad. But when you learn that in January 2013 a new report admits there is not even one case of lionfish poisoning ever reported you could wonder what’s up. Especially since the FDA regularly reports the same toxin poisoning present in snapper and grouper. But we still enjoy these, and it hardly affects sales.

Ciguatera is a region based toxin; it’s in the reef, coral, algae of specific tropical corridors- which means every specie caught from that area will have problems. The toxic bioaccumulates up the food chain- contaminated reefs to herbivorous fish to the predator fishes that consume them. But it’s mainly a problem of the region, not the species per se. Scientists are now reconsidering, and suggesting that venom in the fins of the lionfish could have caused the false-positives.

I highlight these issues of price, safety, taste, supply and demand to ask why we don’t see lionfish more prominently on menus everywhere. So when it’s not all these reasons and everything is in place- the problem is ours. We have to work on innovating new methods on catching them, we have to double-down on marketing and branding, and we have to do everything in our means to get these guys out of our waters. And to make people care. 

Where we come in:

Traditional Fisheries once appeared on an episode of Shark Tank. They didn’t get funded. But I thought what they were doing was exceptionally amazing, so I wrote an email to the founder David Johnson. And he actually responded with an offer to work for him. So that was that. Ever since, I’ve been Ishmael in this narrative.

They say great entrepreneurship is about forging opportunities in problems.

I didn’t know anything about fishing. Other than I like doing it occasionally. My dad grew up in a coastal region in India and has loved the oceans. I just inherited that love. I don’t have other value judgments of animals. Although if I get to know the jellyfish better, I suspect it won’t go too well.

David’s story is long and interesting, but lionfish takes center-stage now. In a sea-facing village in Mexico, he discovered and married its most beautiful woman. His brother-in-laws all happened to be spear-fishermen. This village didn’t have a lot of cars, its inhabitants hardly made $20 a day and didn’t have a lot of options in terms of livelihood. But they had a lionfish problem. So Traditional Fisheries was born.

Fast forward a few years, Traditional Fisheries has been featured in a lot of the top press in the country, been the darlings at conferences. The exposure and story of the company and lionfish were great. But the product & business? Because Lionfish is a rare fish to eat, it automatically became a dainty meal for the rich and famous. It’s favored in High end sushi parlors who enjoy writing ‘venom’ on the menus. Does that inflate our ego? Heck yeah. Does it solve the problem and save the oceans? Not by a fraction. Validation from the elites is always a positive sign, but since we’re on a mission unless we McDonaldize this fish, demand levels won’t foster innovation and action.

So for now, the world would need a Captain Ahab. Someone who’s simply chasing fish in the wild with a vengeance. David Johnson is that person. He’s crazy for trying to feed people a fish nobody cares enough about yet. They’re too much of a hassle and pain.

And This is How You Bait 'Em

First order of business: we had to get zen.
To catch an asshole, one must think like one. We would know a thing or two about the process.

Meditate with me. Here is a fish who is overstuffed and oversexed. Not a bother about any predator or disaster. In fact, the lionfish has marginalized predators on their own turf. He owns this joint. So to entice him, you must throw in a toddler.

A toddler is a threat because...? Because a toddler might have sex with his woman(s) and eat his food. Were these two facts exigent- the attack by the Lionfish on the toddler-bait would be justified. But they’re not. Lionfish know that much. But the adult lionfish still goes cannibalistic on that baby’s ass. On a complex emotion of jealousy and insecurity, a toddler will invoke cannibalism by threatening the adult’s virility. In short: the toddler-lure works because the lionfish is an asshole.

So this would be the uninvited guy at the party who ends up stealing the house, b/eating up every guy there, impregnating all the ladies and then punching a baby on the way out. I had said anthropomorphizing animals was silly. But it sure makes hunting more fun.

Nietzsche had said whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become one. I don’t know whether that’s true. But getting the baby punched is where we come in. That’s where the magic happens.

The hook is the lionfish’s propensity to act on cannibalistic tendencies against its young. Several species do this. Mostly when there is limited food sources available. The fact that you can still eat your own kind after being obese and well-fornicated make this fish even more unlikeable.

Other fish don’t eat like that. Throw a mackerel a lure after lunch and see whether it nibbles. It won’t. It just had food.

I had written earlier that the lionfish doesn’t care enough about traditional fishing methods. That still holds true: current lure and bait designs work on a different set of motivations- hunger. The designs of lures usually involve bright coloring to attract attention, or look like prey animals- rarely, if ever, is the same specie used to bait the adult. But in a hunt, the lure is everything. And the design of the lure should be motivated by knowing your target audience and the environment it’s in. The lionfish isn’t motivated by food or attention in our waters. So we resorted to cannibalism and jealousy, which worked out well. Fuel the fire, feed the beast its rage... and feel weird.

Curtesy Traditional Fisheries

It’s so simple that you would wonder why it hadn’t been tried before, it’s so unremarkable you would never guess someone premeditated its design. These toddler-bait lures might not work on Lionfish in their native habitat, but for some reason their ultra-aggressive behavior in foreign waters can be their undoing. And isn’t that the purpose of good design.

Although the lures were a fun experiment, it’s still not a large scale solution. What it is is the first concerted and successful attempt in baiting invasive lionfish using lures. Even better, it served as the preface for our smart-traps.

Traditional Fisheries recently announced the world’s first sensor based Smart-Traps. Soon, we’ll have the capability to hunt lionfish en masse on an unprecedented scale. I'll be writing a bit about these traps during the tests. Using software recognition technology and optical sensors we have traps that can recognize targeted breeds of fish. Amongst several reasons, this is useful because we can prevent overfishing of sensitive marine stock and also curb the horrendous bye-catches that mostly all commercial fisheries face. That means when you hunt lionfish, you’ll only get lionfish and not baby sea-turtles.

Touch base with me @MimoMishra.