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.
Technical 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.