Reef Conservation International (ReefCI) is a non-profit organization in Belize battling what founder, Polly Alford, refers to as “the worst marine disaster in history.” ReefCI is tackling the invasion of the lionfish in Belize through culling, dissecting, jewellery-making and a delicious source of protein. We believe ReefCI should consider recent evidence-based practices in order to continue with an adaptive management approach to lionfish removal and reef conservation.

What’s the deal with lionfish?

You may look at the lionfish and think, “wow, what a beautiful creature, how harmful can it be?”

This cute little fish lives up to it’s common name. Taken from

The answer is extremely.

Although it’s equipped with venomous spines, that’s not the only threat to life under the sea. The lionfish (Pterois volitans) is a voracious underwater predator and an extreme threat to native fish and other reef species in the Caribbean marine ecosystem. There is a lot of speculation regarding the details of how exactly lionfish ended up in Atlantic waters, but it is widely known that they were introduced from an aquarium release and have established quite a bad reputation by the locals.

Lionfish sightings, 1985-2014. (US Geological Survey/Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission)
Lionfish sightings, 1985-2014. Taken from

The lionfish is able to spread rapidly due to many advantageous characteristics, creating the perfect gilled monster for invasion and colonization:

  • No natural predators
  • Lethal physical defense
  • High reproductive rate, releasing about 2 million eggs per year
  • Able to survive in a wide range of habitats and water depths (2-140m)
  • Generalist predator (non-selective feeder)
Wanted: Dead and Grilled. Taken from

Some of the adverse effects of lionfish in invasive waters include:

  • Reducing economically important species and leading local fish to extinction
  • Disruptions in the algae population, affecting the health of coral reefs
  • Possible reduction in tourist and recreational activities

Check out Phillipe Cousteau Jr and his team investigate how the Atlantic Ocean has been invaded by the poisonous lionfish in the video below.


What is ReefCI doing to help?

Reef Conservation International is located in Placencia, Belize, and has been using various interventions to reduce the amount of lionfish in their waters.

Their motto:

Kill them, eat them, dissect them, wear them!

Kill Them…

Staff at ReefCI dive 4-5 times a week around the Tom Owens Caye within the Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve. During these dives, an effort to manage lionfish populations is done by culling (a.k.a killing) lionfish, with spears and collection bags. In addition to the staff dives, ReefCI spends an entire day educating guests about the adverse role invasive lionfish currently play in the waters surround Belize.
After spending the morning training and practicing, the guests are taken on a dive to cull lionfish with the assistance of staff members.

Click here to watch a video of ReefCI culling a lionfish, or click on the video below.

Eat Them…

A day spent at ReefCI may include a lesson on how to fillet, cook, and clean a lionfish as well as being taught safe-handling techniques during dissection. ReefCI also sets up booths at festivals such as the Chocolate Festival or the TIDE Fish Festival Weekend in Belize to engage tourists and local residents in dialogue about lionfish, as well as offer tasty cooked samples. ReefCI also helps to create a hunger for lionfish on the menus in Belize restaurants. The tourists that stay with ReefCI are adamantly encouraged to dine in restaurants on the mainland and request lionfish, regardless of whether it’s on the menu. The owner of a local restaurant in Punta Gorda, claims that regardless of the high price (being the second most expensive item after lobster tails), lionfish is in such high demand that it cannot be fished out of the water fast enough!

For more information on where you can try this delicious fish, click here for a list of restaurants that currently serve lionfish all over the globe.

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Dissect Them…

Another important weapon in ReefCI’s arsenal is the research that they carry out through lionfish dissection. Dissection, in this case, is when lionfish are sliced open to look at and record the nasty stuff on the inside.

ReefCI aims to:

  • Dissect 40 lionfish per week, as staff and “citizen scientist” guests.
  • Gather data on size, sex, presence of eggs, and stomach contents.
  • Compile data into an annual report of their conservation actions and submit to the Government of Belize Fisheries.
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Reports have been completed for the 2013 (not available online) and 2014 years, however data from 2015 is not yet available.

Wear Them…

The fins of lionfish are used to create jewellery made by local women and sold around Placencia. Jewellery-making provides an educational accessory for tourists and opportunity for local women to make a profit.
ReefCI gives lionfish parts to the local women to create jewellery, and buys back them to sell to their guests.

Taken from, a ReefCI initiative.

Click here to learn more about the jewellery initiative and to see their beautiful samples!

Does Culling Work?

Scholars agree that although it takes long-term effort, culling lionfish is believed to be the best strategy to target lionfish populations, especially in regional settings such as the small area around Tom Owens Cayes, where ReefCI is located.

However it’s become clear that lionfish can get used to divers and develop avoidance behaviour.
(We’d be scared of funny looking things with spears too)

Research by Isabelle Côté and her ocean-loving friends suggests that in order to prevent the lionfish from showing adaptive behaviour:

1) Divers need to target the more ‘shy’ lionfish they find on reefs, and not just the ‘fearless’ fish.

2) The first kill attempt must be successful, so that an escaped fish does not learn to be fearful.

Are ReefCI’s other initiatives meaningful?

The short answer is yes. But ReefCI should consider and do more.
Dissecting allows ReefCI to collect valuable information for anyone interested in lionfish trends, including the Belize government. However, the data does contain bias and should not be used to generalize trends in other areas of the Atlantic Ocean.
Jewellery made from lionfish is an educational and socio-economic opportunity. However, jewellery has not yet managed to create an demand for killed lionfish, which we know is the most effective strategy.
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Lionfish is one of the most popular menu items in Belizean restaurants (not to mention the tastiest).  There is concern that the adoption of the species as a valuable protein source could create cultural dependency and a means for lionfish to be maintained in a region, instead of removed. Promoting the consumption of lionfish should be paired with educational interventions to have a lasting effect.

What are others doing to fight the invasion?

REEF’s Lionfish Derbies. Taken from,%20fish%20in%20a%20row.large%20preview.png

A pioneering (and brave) group of conservationists in Honduras attempted to teach predator species to hunt lionfish as a food source. However, the predator training experiment was deemed a failure after sharks began to associate food with humans and put humans at risk of being attacked.
REEF organization, in Key Largo, Florida, holds lionfish derbies with cash prizes for the most lionfish caught, as well as the biggest and smallest lionfish caught, respectively. REEF has caught 16,134 lionfish in their derbies since 2009 and continues to educate the public through their programs.
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Where do we go from here?

When it comes to lionfish, the road ahead is long and to some, even hopeless.
The good news is that there are groups of lionfish tamers, like those at ReefCI.

  •  According to Stephanie Green (@steph_j_green), a phD student who previously worked with Blue Ventures in Belize, the Belizean Government and a number of non-governmental organizations, including ReefCI, are now working to determine whether there is a viable market for lionfish in Belize (ie. fisheries and jewellery business).
    • They are implementing marine field surveys and social science surveys to assess the potential of reducing the ecological effects of lionfish invasion and supplement income to lower-income citizens
  • Stacy Martin, owner of Asha’s Cultural Kitchen in Punta Gorda, Belize, wants to see lionfish exported commercially across the world in food supply chains.
"I think the big start up costs is one thing that has deterred someone from going for it, because the conversation is there amongst the local scientific community, just hasn't happened yet."
 - Stacy Martin, Owner of Asha's Cultural Kitchen 
  • Polly Alford, of ReefCI, wants to see the local jewellery business grow, with sales in Belizean airports and even more through the web. She was recently in Colombia to educate Colombian entrepeneurs on ReefCI’s jewellery initiative.


Polly Alford thinks of culling like, “weeding the garden;” which we all know as a tedious action that requires a lot of sweat and dirt, but offers the reward of a tidy garden.

A spectacular reef in Belize. Taken from

In ReefCI’s case, we hope to see Belize’s reef evolve into a tidy underwater ‘garden’, with lionfish dangling off more ears, inside more bellies and on the end of more spears.


And don’t forget..

Lionfish are FOOD, not FRIENDS.

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Want to know more?
Contact the Authors via Twitter:
Virginia Hermanson (@virgherm)
Maggie Bell (@magsbell4)
Daniel Millerd (@DJpussycat1)
Sarah Keller (@sarahkells)


Bryce, Emma. (2015, February 6) Cooking can’t solve the threat of invasive species. The Guardian. (accessed 18 November, 2015).

Choi, C. (2011). Taming the Lionfish: Can predators be trained to control an invasive species? Retrieved from,8599,2070599,00.html

Côté I.M., L. Akins, E. Underwood , J. Curtis-Quick, and Green SJ. (2014). Setting the record straight on invasive lionfish control: Culling works. PeerJ PrePrints 2:e398v1. doi:10.7287/peerj.preprints.398v1

European Commision. (2014). Question and Answers on the EU’s fight against illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. Retrieved from

Martin, Stacy. Email correspondence. Asha’s Culture Kitchen, Punta Gorda. Nov 2015.

ReefCI. Prices and Booking.” Retrieved from

Wurzbacher, Jessica. (September 2011). The Lionfish Invasion. Sailors for the Sea. Retrieved from