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Are Lionfish Bigger In Deep Water?

September 14, 2013 19 Comments
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Giant-Sized Lionfish in Deep Water

I’ve hunted lionfish for a couple of years now and the number of my confirmed kills in the hundreds. I’ve hunted them in a foot of water, and I’ve hunted them in 200 ft of water. It never ceases to surprise me the variety of places I find them or how well they can hide – even in plain sight. Like cockroaches, lionfish exist in far greater numbers than what we may see on any given dive. While you may see one lionfish, there are actually many, many more in that same area. This is a concept I understand and makes sense to me.

What I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around is the whole myth that lionfish are always bigger in deeper waters, and that these deeper waters are where the true giants live out their lives. This myth, of course, usually comes from recreational divers who have never been below 130 feet; many have never been to even 100 feet, and few have any hunting experience at all.

The fact of the matter is, where I live and dive (Utila and Roatán, Honduras), there are usually far, far fewer numbers of lionfish found at deeper depths, between 150 and 200 feet, than are found at shallower depths. Additionally, the vast majority of the fish caught at deeper depths are the same size as those that are found between 40-60 feet. If the truth be told, I have caught all of my largest lionfish within the “recreational” depth range of scuba diving. As well, none of the record-sized lionfish authenticated through the WLHA, have been caught outside of recreational ranges.

The more times I dive between the 150 feet to 200 feet range, the more I become convinced that, 90% of the time, lionfish are the same size at these deeper depths as they are at the shallower depths. However, there are a number of tec divers and submariners, that claim there, indeed, are extreme numbers and sizes of lionfish in isolated pockets in water of 200 feet or deeper.

Giant Lionfish HoaxTechnical scuba diving and lionfish hunting to these depths require the use of Trimix and cost a great deal more than simple air dives. As an example, a decompression dive to 200 feet will cost me a maximum of about $15 if my tanks are filled with regular air. A dive just 50 feet deeper will cost me about $100 due to the additional cost of Trimix, Nitrox, and O2. Another 50 feet deeper than that, to 300 feet, will cost me about $200 in gasses, which is why my personal hunting experience deeper than 200 feet is limited. I simply cannot afford to buy Helium all the time, nor do I have a dive buddy that can dive to these depths with me. As far as I can tell, there is a grand total of 2 technical divers on the island of Roatán, and I am one of them. The other diver is a tec instructor, which keeps him entirely too busy to plan on additional tec dives with any regularity. So, this leaves me diving by myself in 200 feet or less.

At the deeper depths 180-200 feet, there is much less cover to hide the lionfish. I believe that submariners see such large numbers of lionfish because they traverse far more terrain at depth than I ever could unless I used a diver propulsion vehicle. All of the accounts I have read and seen accompanying pictures of masses of lionfish, or giant lionfish, are around some form of structure, not sand slopes or isolated patches of deep water corals. This is where I find a few small groups of fish but no numbers greater than what I find gathered around barrel sponges at 70 feet. The most I’ve found was on Utila and there were 14 lionfish hanging around one 6 foot tall barrel sponge sitting in about 60 feet of water. Of the 14, I killed 8 or 9 of them. The rest must have caught wind of my intentions and hauled ass out of there.

What I’m wondering now, is how many tec divers actually hunt deep in other waters and what they see. Honduras was only invaded in 2009 so the populations in this area are not as well established as other places. Therefore, we have smaller fish and fewer numbers. On the other side of that coin is the fact that this means we might have a leg up on the fight….if you want to be optimistic about it, that is. We don’t really have a handle, at all, on the spread of lionfish.

We can only manage small areas that we commonly dive;. small pin points littered over a map of the Western Atlantic. That’s it. We’re like the 3% of Americans that fought in the Revolutionary War but we have zero chance of winning…..except in our own backyards. Here we can keep them at bay and fill our tables at the same time. Does that make it sound like I’m happy that they’ll always be around? I kind of am. If we can keep the reef healthy AND have them to hunt and eat, I would love it.

Sadly this isn’t the case and I can’t have my lionfish and eat them too, or so the saying goes.

Special thanks to Kelly Ash for contributing this article.

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Comments (19)

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  1. Izzy says:

    We find ourselves regularly at about 30-37m (100-140ft), Dominica was “invaded” in 2011 so again i assume we are still seeing the first wave of invasion, dependent upon time of day you may find bigger fish deeper, we have found that during the normal dive day (0900-1200hrs), bigger fish are found deeper, but should you go in an hour before sunset, or extremely early, these bigger fish have migrated shallower.
    As you said, many people have not hunted at 30m or shallower, some of us do almost daily. Its all about focus and efficiency. Covered in another very good article i read.

  2. Sam Wilson says:

    The picture in the article must be a fake….. Just sayin…. I hold the DR. record and my 43 cm was very hard to find…. We did get a 41 today on our dive w/ Scott & Stacey Turner.. The rest were small… Most of the “Big” ones we get are 36-38 cms…

  3. Michael Pement says:

    I’m a rebreather (Megalodon) TriMix diver and Lionfish hunter on Bonaire with more than two thousand kills and regularly dive in the 150 to 200 foot range on air. I agree that diving deeper is expensive, even on a rebreather, but have found Lionfish at every depth too. I have found them in 400 fsw.

    The “invasion” began here in 2009 also, and our record fish is 46cm caught by Ramon de Leon. We often get fish in the 40 to 45 centimeter range but I agree that they are not necessarily deep, but crafty and adept at hiding deep in the coral no matter what depth.

    We are seeing fewer Lionfish at hunted sites, but still see big numbers at difficult to reach sites. They are everywhere at every depth.

    I do believe that the chance of killing a big fish improves with depth because they are not used to seeing divers there and watch as you approach and shoot rather than run and hide like the big fish do in the shallows. But as a rule, I’m as apt to see a 44cm fish at 30fsw as at 230fsw.

    • Kelly says:

      Good points Michael. As long as people are killing them and spreading the lionfish hunting fever, I’m happy.

      I haven’t yet run into a large group, or individual, at depth, and consistently take larger fish from recreational depths.

      As each location is different, maybe one day I’ll find a honey hole down deep that will hold one of these giants I’ve heard so much about. Until, I’ll just keep looking 🙂

  4. Wadadli says:

    I do not dive (yet), but have long interest in the Caribbean. I did come across this article dated 13th July 2013 from Oregon State University which may be of interest. It’s headline is ‘Lionfish expedition: down deep is where the big, scary ones live’. Links below.

    http://oregonstate.edu/ua/ncs/archives/2013/jul/lionfish-expedition-down-deep-are-where-big-scary-ones-live

    Alternativly:

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/07/130711172536.htm

    • Kelly says:

      These deep depths are the new frontiers of the fight to control the invasive lionfish. The major obstacles to controlling these depths are the need for additional experience and training, different and additional gear, and the required and expensive breathing gasses to sustain human life at these depths.

      All of this adds up to a necessity for other techniques and technologies to increase our effectiveness down deep.

      What are these techniques and technologies?

      Anything that can get own there and kill them en mass. Things like lionfish specific fish traps along with lionfish specific baits and attractants seem like the best option at the moment.

      Maybe, one day, someone will invent an unmanned submersible lionfish hunting machine and we can hunt them from our computers and XBoxes at 300 feet.

  5. albert ohayon says:

    we have also been invaded in Jamaica, unfortunately, lion fish are now everywhere. We try to kill as many as we can with spear guns and fishing lines. People are eating this fish, but no one knows how serious the lion fish intrusion is, as we have spots where no diving, nor fishing is taking place.The dives i made are no more than 20 feet of depth and i have no idea how it is at greater depth. If anyone knows anything about the lion fish in Jamaica, please let us know.

    • Kelly says:

      I think there’s a place called Scuba Jamaica there you might be able to check with regarding lionfish in Jamaica and maybe some Jamaican hunters will reply here.

  6. Weldon Wade says:

    Here in Bermuda, there’s a deep diving technical team that finds lionfish in vast numbers at depth that are huge, but we also find huge ones in the shallows from time to time. It’s the tiny ones that are rarest at the moment, 5 inches and smaller.

  7. lloyd says:

    would like to freedive for lionfish along florida’s east coast. anyone experienced in hunting them at 20 to 30 ft. ?

  8. Bryce DeMann says:

    Isn’t it basically the places that get divers/hunters the least will get bigger/more lionfish? Hardly ever see any at 100ft at palancar because there are a thousand divers a day. But we can get 30-40 per dive at 25ft doing shore dives where no one regularly goes. Every little bit of cover in 5ft or more seems to have something on it. We are coming to get tips from Scott in January. Taking out as many as we can from the Cozumel shallows.

  9. Stan says:

    Bryce I am in Cozumel now Would you share where off shore you go. Planning to go Saturday if the wind stops blowing from the north
    Thks Stsn

  10. Stan says:

    If you let me know at my email address swolofsky@gmail.com

  11. Stan says:

    Thanks Bryce

  12. Bryce DeMann says:

    We used a small inflatable to do dives from the pier at costa del sol. Probably about a 3 mile long stretch between residencias reef and then north towards the new beach club south of playa corona. Never more than 45′ deep and only 1-300 yards offshore.

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