Partnering to Manage Lionfish in the Bay Islands, Honduras


Bay Islands, Honduras

The challenge

The Bay Islands of Honduras are comprised of three main islands with smaller cays surrounding them. Reef systems surround all of the Bay Islands, ranging from barrier to fringing reefs. This is the eastern-most part of the Mesoamerican Reef, the second largest barrier reef in the world. The largest island, Roatán, is the capital of the Bay Islands. Since the 1950s, the economy of the Bay Islands has been tightly integrated into global markets, although the nature of that engagement has changed over time. In the 1950s-1960s, the lobster, conch, and shrimp industry was the mainstay of a booming Bay Islands’ economy. Later, in the 1970s, much of the Bay Islands economy came from an influx of diving tourism. Beginning in the 1990s, and continuing to the present, large-scale cruise ship tourism became a driving economic force. As tourism increased so did emigration from mainland Honduras to the Bay Islands. This influx of people put stress on the natural resources in the area. Today, a diverse population inhabits the Bay Islands.

Lionfish have become a major threat to native fish populations throughout the Caribbean and have been documented in the Atlantic since the 1990s. It is theorized that the presence of lionfish is due to the aquarium trade and the accidental release of the fish during various Hurricanes. Another hypothetical avenue for introduction from the Pacific has also been attributed to ballast water. When lionfish were first noticed in Belize in 2008, and soon spotted in the Bay Islands, managers had little time to plan a response. The lionfish began invading the shallow reefs and within two years they could be found around the whole region. In 2009, lionfish (Pterois spp.) were observed in the Bay Islands National Park, a protected area spanning 6,471.5 km2, with several management categories, ranging from no-take zones to multiple use areas.

Lionfish, an invasive species in the Caribbean. © Antonio Busiello.

Lionfish, an invasive species in the Caribbean. © Antonio Busiello.

Managers in the Bay Islands noticed declines in reef fish biomass across the Bay Islands – even in areas with fewer resident lionfish. One alarming discovery was the decrease in cleaner fish like the damselfish (Stegastes spp.). Cleaner fish are comprised of many different species but share a common mutualistic behavior – they feed on the dead skin and parasites of other fish. Cleaner fish are particularly vulnerable because they are unaware that the lionfish are predators and approach the lionfish to remove dead skin and parasites. Researchers were also finding larvae of many native fish in the guts of lionfish when they were dissected.

Actions taken

In Honduras, the national government provides no funding to manage the reef systems of the Bay Islands, so local and international NGOs must seek grants to support reef management. With the increasing numbers of lionfish on the Bay Islands’ reefs, managers and local NGOs began strategizing ways to rid the area of these invasive species. When lionfish became a problem throughout the Bay Islands and a problem for all NGOs in the region, they decided to join forces to find a strategy to eradicate the invader. They tried using nets, traps, and a “suction method” in which lionfish were siphoned out of the water with a PVC pipe. In addition to this, and, inspired by its success in the eastern Caribbean, managers began to target lionfish by spearfishing. They found spearfishing to be the most successful method to remove the fish.

The local Bay Islands NGOs worked together to successfully petition the Fisheries Department to allow permits for spearfishing lionfish. Both Roatán Marine Park and Bay Islands Conservation Association Utila helped to train divers, such as staff from local dive shops and advanced divers, to find and spear lionfish on the protected reefs. The training helped to foster better relationships between different NGOs in the area. Different local and international NGOs including the Healthy Reefs Initiative, and the Coral Reef Alliance (CORAL), began learning from one another and working together.

Funding for the training came from a combination of individual divers paying for training and through a voluntary tax (or user fee) that dive centers agreed to put on their services. Licenses were only given to dive instructors and dive masters. Since most of these volunteers are foreigners with higher incomes, they were able to pay for the licenses themselves. For about $35, volunteers can purchase a license, a spear, and one hour of training. The voluntary tax revenue is put towards eradication of lionfish from the Bay Island reefs as well as patrolling and environmental education.

Diver on Cordelia Banks, Roatan © Dano Pendygrasse.

Local skilled fishers (mainly from the Garifuna community) are also being trained to catch (without SCUBA), clean, cook, and market lionfish. Lionfish can now be found on the menu of 40 restaurants on Utila and Roatán, with fillets being sold to mainland grocery stores and delis.

How successful has it been?

Spearfishing is decreasing numbers of lionfish in the Bay Islands. However, it is only effective if it is done in conjunction with properly managed areas. Though it is too early to tell the overall effect of the spearfishing initiative, ongoing assessments of the reefs reveal that there is an increase in biomass of reef fish where lionfish are hunted.

An ongoing challenge of the spearfishing project is the potential abuse of permit rights. Some local fishermen, who are trained and given licenses, illegally hunt protected reef fish, such as snapper and grouper. This is clearly seen when patrol boats find these fish speared in local fishers boats around the islands.

Lessons learned and recommendations

  • Partnerships between local and international NGOs: The widespread lionfish invasion compelled many local NGOs to come together. This partnership has allowed NGOs to pool their resources and expertise and has led to better managed marine protected areas.
  • A united front: The NGOs presenting a united front was important to improving the visibility of Bay Islands’ conservation issues at the national and international level. Where there were once many separately managed MPAs, there is now one large MPA, the Bay Islands National Marine Park. The NGOs coordinate their messages and their initiatives, which has been helpful in asking the government to grant licenses for spearfishing lionfish.
  • The need for a “middle man”: International NGOs like CORAL and the Healthy Reefs Initiative, help to create neutral ground in a contentious local NGO environment. The monitoring training also helped to bring together local NGOs.
  • Spearfishing only works with concurrent management: Reefs that were found to be more resilient to the lionfish invasion were those reefs that were already adequately managed. For example, areas that had better water quality and higher levels of surveillance/enforcement had higher populations of grouper (Epinephelus sp. and Mycteroperca sp.) and other animals that predate lionfish. In areas with higher diversity, unlikely predators might emerge. For example, sharks and eels have been found to prey on lionfish and sharks can be trained by divers to eat lionfish. In shark sanctuary sites there are fewer and smaller lionfish than in sites with fewer sharks.

Funding summary

Eighty percent of the enforcement and environmental education projects carried out by the Roatán Marine Park are funded through voluntary taxes from dive shops and an eco-store that is locally managed. About 20% of program work is funded through grants.

Lead organizations

Healthy Reefs Initiative
Coral Reef Alliance
Bay Islands Conservation Association Utila
Roatán Marine Park
Utila Center for Marine Ecology
The Atlantic and Gulf Rapid Reef Assessment Program


Government of Honduras


Roatán Marine Park Lionfish Program

Lionfish Guide to Control and Management (pdf)

Written by: Ian Drysdale, Honduras Coordinator for the Healthy Reefs Initiative
Jenny Myton, Honduras Field Rep for the Coral Reef Alliance
Giacomo Palavicini, Executive Director of the Roatán Marine Park

This case study was adapted from: Cullman, G. (ed.) 2014. Resilience Sourcebook: Case studies of social-ecological resilience in island systems. Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, American Museum of Natural History, New York, NY.

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