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Ambassadors Programme

Explorer

Franco Banfi

Dec15

Species invasion

By Franco Banfi, Thursday December 15, 2016
Our dive guide, Mathias, is spear-fishing some lion fish in the Banco Chinchorro Biosphere Reserve, Mexico. Taken on an EOS 5DS with an EF8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM lens inside a Seacam underwater housing with two Seaflash 150 strobes; the exposure was 1/125sec at f/8, ISO 160.

Our dive guide, Mathias, is spear-fishing some lion fish in the Banco Chinchorro Biosphere Reserve, Mexico. Taken on an EOS 5DS with an EF8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM lens inside a Seacam underwater housing with two Seaflash 150 strobes; the exposure was 1/125sec at f/8, ISO 160. © Franco Banfi

Just 30 kilometres offshore from Xcalak, the southernmost town in the state of Quintana Roo, Mexico, lies the largest coral atoll in the northern hemisphere: the elusive Banco Chinchorro. In 1996, Banco Chinchorro was named a Biosphere Reserve which is the highest level of ecological protection offered by the Mexican government. It is almost impossible for a dive operator to acquire a permit to take divers to Chinchorro. On top of that there are no permanent settlements on the atoll, which covers 800 square kilometres. And less than 1 percent of that area is above sea level.

The lack of accommodation for tourists on the atoll means that the only way to get to Chinchorro is to take a day trip with a mainland based dive operator who has permission to conduct diving there. And, most of all, good weather is needed to travel to the atoll. In the past, Banco Chinchorro has been many captains’ worst nightmare and is a graveyard of wrecks from all ages: these vessels have run aground on the treacherous fringing reef on the windward (eastern) side of the atoll. The majority of these wrecks are in very shallow water and are also in the wave break zone.

Dolphins are frequently seen cruising the edge of the atoll, and pilot whales have been spotted during the deep water crossing from the mainland a few times every year. Divers often encounter spotted eagle rays, stingrays, a variety of sharks, and many species of sea turtles. But this heaven is facing a major threat: the invasion of lionfish which is causing grave concern because of its deleterious impacts on coral reef food-webs, by decreasing the survival rates of a wide range of native reef animals via both predation and competition.

Biological invasions are a leading cause of biodiversity loss and represent a substantial contribution to human-caused global change. Two closely related species of predatory lionfish (Pterois volitans and P. miles) were introduced via aquarium trade from their native range in the Indo-Pacific to the Western Atlantic. They were first reported off of Florida, the US in 1985. Between 1992 and 2006, they spread rapidly northward along the eastern seaboard of the US and southward into the Caribbean: they have colonised 7.3 million square kilometres of the western Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean region, and populations have grown exponentially at many locations. While it is important to mention that extensive studies of predation of lionfish have not been reported, the apparent paucity of natural predators may be due, in part, to the defensive dorsal, anal, and pelvic spines of lionfish, which deliver a potent venom that may be fatal to fish. The lionfish invasion highlights the complexity of managing introduced species in the marine environment.

It is likely that few native Atlantic (including Caribbean) species represent significant potential predators of lionfish. For all these reasons, conservationists encourage spear-fishing and culling to reduce their numbers in the hope of preventing an ecological disaster. The real hope is that nature will rapidly evolve and local species will learn to eat the new arrivals.

Nurse Shark (Ginglymostoma cirratum) swimming over the reef, Banco Chinchorro Biosphere Reserve, Mexico. Taken on an EOS 5DS with an EF8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM lens inside a Seacam underwater housing with two Seaflash 150 strobes; the exposure was 1/160sec at f/10, ISO 160.

Nurse Shark (Ginglymostoma cirratum) swimming over the reef, Banco Chinchorro Biosphere Reserve, Mexico. Taken on an EOS 5DS with an EF8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM lens inside a Seacam underwater housing with two Seaflash 150 strobes; the exposure was 1/160sec at f/10, ISO 160. © Franco Banfi

Fisherman's stilt where we spent the night at the Banco Chinchorro Biosphere Reserve, Mexico. Taken on an EOS 5D Mark III with an EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens inside a Seacam underwater housing with two Seaflash 150 strobes; the exposure was 1 second at f/8, ISO 160.

Fisherman's stilt where we spent the night at the Banco Chinchorro Biosphere Reserve, Mexico. Taken on an EOS 5D Mark III with an EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens inside a Seacam underwater housing with two Seaflash 150 strobes; the exposure was 1 second at f/8, ISO 160.
© Franco Banfi