Charity aims to slow spread of ocean menace

  • Lionfish


Lionfish usually only grow up to 15ins in length and weigh less than the average bag of sugar, yet they might spell one of the worst ecological disasters the Atlantic Ocean has ever known.

Graham Maddocks owner of Triangle Diving, an outfit that trains scuba divers and takes divers out on expeditions, recently started the Ocean Support Foundation. The charity’s aim is to use highly trained deep water divers to help slow the spread of lionfish in Bermuda and possibly help with other deep water ocean projects.

Although he and his wife, Madison Mello, have sacrificed a lot of money to set up the charity this year, their ambitions aren’t entirely altruistic.

“I have thrown any available cash we have at this project, because if we don’t get a handle on the lionfish problem, I won’t have a business in ten years,” said Mr Maddocks. “The lionfish will wipe us out. There won’t be any fish left in Bermuda waters.”

When Mr Maddocks first heard about lionfish in Bermuda waters several years ago, he was sceptical.

“We said we hadn’t seen any lionfish,” said Mr Maddocks. “But the next year we saw more, and the year after that many more. This year we are killing lionfish on every recreational dive trip we go on.”

The problem with lionfish is that they breed very quickly. In the Caribbean they lay 20,000 to 30,000 eggs every four or five days. Their red and white striped fins attract fish because they look like a waving coral plant.

Fish in the Pacific Ocean are genetically programmed to fear lionfish but those in the Atlantic have no such natural fear, making them easy targets. As a result, lionfish act like vacuums in the ocean, swallowing up everything in their paths. On one trip, Mr Maddocks and his diving friends killed six lionfish and later found over 100 smaller fish in their stomachs. The lionfish have venomous fins that stun marine life and can even hurt humans. They also exist in a wide range of depths from New York to South America. No-one is really sure how they got into the Atlantic, but it is thought that someone probably got bored with their pet lionfish in their fish tank and released them into the ocean, unintentionally creating environmental devastation.

Through their work, Mr Maddocks and other divers are gaining new insight into the species. For example, they have noticed that the lionfish like to congregate in large numbers around rocks, boulders or reefs in around 200ft of water.

“We have been videotaping and observing,” said Mr Maddocks. “The Bermuda Department of Environmental Protection are very aware of the problem because it is now becoming painfully clear in the Caribbean. The lionfish are now 80 percent of the reef cover there. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has called this probably one of the worst environmental disasters the Atlantic Ocean is ever going to face.”

But Mr Maddocks said there is hope for Bermuda. The fact that our ocean platform slopes off gently allows us to more easily set traps for the fish. In the Cayman Islands, by contrast, the ocean drops off very quickly and steeply to 3,000 feet, making it impossible to set traps.

“We will never get rid of them completely,” said Mr Maddocks. “All we can do is try and control their numbers a bit.”

Now the Ocean Support Foundation and other key marine players are getting creative, experimenting with different types of traps, using the old Bermuda lobster trap as a starting point. One of their ideas includes putting pictures of lionfish in the back of a trap as a lure.

“They seem to be attracted to their own type,” said Mr Maddocks. “They seem to gather together for some reason. We are going to try putting pictures of lionfish in the traps. In another experiment we are going to decorate the traps in red and black stripes, because the fish are red and black. We want to see if they are colour-specific. We are going to be blacking out one side of the trap to create a caving situation.”

With all the different trap systems they devise they plan to videotape and record the results. The good news about lionfish is that they are highly edible, and are in fact, a more healthy fish to eat than popular wahoo or tuna.

“Unfortunately, people are afraid of them because they do have a venom in their spines,” said Mr Maddocks. “The spines can be neutralised with cold or heat. You could cut the spines off, burn them with a blow torch or bake them in the oven to kill the venom. The meat is very low in heavy metals. Slow growing fish like wahoo and tuna are pelagic fish that are very full of heavy metals. A lot of health experts are saying you shouldn’t eat too much of them.

“Lionfish are free of heavy metals. You can eat as much of them as you want. They taste like a cross between snapper and hogfish.” Mr Maddocks thought that the lionfish could be the answer to hunger in Bermuda. He envisioned a programme where the fish could be given to fishmongers to sell around the Island, or distributed to the poor.

But the Ocean Support Foundation is not just about lionfish. They are also helping with other deep-water projects such as monitoring black groupers.

“We are here to support other types of environmental concerns and the things that the government organisations like the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries and Conservation Services can’t or don’t have the means to support themselves,” said Mr Maddocks.

Recently, Triangle Diving found an ancient cedar root about nine miles offshore, in about 55ft of water. That is to prove how far the Bermuda shoreline reached out at that point. It also will give scientists a mark depending on the carbon dating of the trees, of how fast the ocean sea levels are rising. The charity has worked this year with NOAA and Texas A&M University on some deep cave projects here.”

He said that Bermuda is a unique spot because it is the second-most remotely populated island in the world and has the furthest north coral reef system in the world. “Because of the isolation a lot of scientists can come here and use it as a base point for scientific studies,” he said. “We have fish that are endemic to the Island. Their DNA code doesn’t exist in other places. These scientific things that are going on here can be an attraction to tourists.”

The Ocean Support Foundation recently had a boat donated to them by Kirk Kitson. Now they are looking for funds to buy underwater scooters to tow deep water divers to lionfish hot spots. At deeper depths divers can only swim short distances. The underwater scooters would allow them to go further distances, and get rid of more lionfish at a time.

“This is very specialised diving,” said Mr Maddocks.

“There are only a few type of people who can do it. We are training people at our own expense. I spent a lot of money to get myself trained. These are inaccessible depths to recreational divers. I really encourage recreational divers not to try this.”

For more information see Mr Maddocks’ Facebook page under Ocean Support Foundation or e-mail info[AT] .To learn more see a BBC documentary with Phillipe Cousteau at

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Published Oct 6, 2011 at 8:25 am (Updated Oct 6, 2011 at 8:23 am)

Charity aims to slow spread of ocean menace

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