Eric Rolland

Tropiques Midi – “Jean-Jacques Seymour” receives: Éric Rolland

Hello Eric. Thank you for being with us. It is the first work, one can say, which appears in French on the lionfish and I want to say "it was time"!

Yes, I was very satisfied to write this book because once I became passionate about the subject of the lionfish – we will explain why later – I noticed that everything that was published was above all scientific production most often of American origin. I myself had some difficulty compiling all of this and that's why I wanted to write this book in French. It is aimed at the general public, because it is really a subject on which there is a need to communicate.

So we are going to communicate precisely: lionfish, lionfish, in the Dominican Republic we call it the "devil's fish". Where does this fish come from which was unknown in our waters, at least in Guadeloupe and Martinique, until now? How was it introduced?

So... It's a fish that lives naturally in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. But because it is magnificently beautiful, it has been the subject of a flourishing trade for the aquarium hobby. It therefore arrived in Atlantic waters off Florida and its first report dates from 1985. It is probably an aquarium release: the most common hypothesis is that an aquarist will have taken a dislike to his lionfish, either because he will have pricked himself during handling during an aquarium cleaning, or because he will have had enough of seeing him eat everything in his aquarium and thinking well, he gave him his freedom, triggering a disaster.

There are several theses around that, it is even said that an aquarium was destroyed in Florida during a cyclone…

That's right. Hurricane Andrew in 1992 destroyed an aquarium in Florida. This one was close to the sea and the wave would have taken with it the lionfish that were in the tanks at the time. But as this event dates back to 1992 and the first documented reports date back to 1985 – see for some, unofficially, even earlier – we can say that the origin of the invasion is multiple. But anyway it's a question of aquarium.

You uttered a word that resonates with me, “invasion”.

In effect. The lionfish is what is known as an invasive alien species (IAS). The fact that the species is exotic would not be serious in itself if it lived its little life alone, in a territory that is not its own without causing damage around it. The problem with this species is that it is invasive , that is to say that it has found in the Caribbean environment conditions of temperature, food and development that make it have a phenomenal prolificacy. It is its mode of reproduction that has enabled it to colonize the entire Caribbean basin in thirty years, from northern New York State to Trinidad and Tobago.

I saw a number that is frightening: 30,000 eggs laid every 4 days by the females... They are wickedly prolific!

That, you can say. Indeed this is the number that circulates most frequently, lionfish have this ability to reproduce every 4 days, but it's worse than you imagine. It's all year round and it's also very early in their female life, that is to say that from one year of existence, they are already able to reproduce, which is not the case of other reef fish. So all these cumulative reproductive qualities mean that, even if the egg mortality is enormous, it is a fish that develops at lightning speed. It's a small tsunami on biodiversity.

From Florida to the West Indies, how do they circulate? Are they carried by the currents?

The fish itself is not very mobile, it lives in its hunting territory, it creates a vacuum around it but it does not move much. On the other hand, when it lays its eggs, these are enveloped in a kind of repellent mucus which protects them at first. They are carried by currents and winds on the surface of the sea, in the direction of the current or the chop, and they gradually disperse throughout the larval period. Before becoming a real larva there is a whole period [00:04:49.24]. And as soon as the fish becomes a larva, it colonizes the nearby reef, that is, it descends, it takes shelter and lies in wait. And he begins his devastating work since he starts to eat everything that comes in front of him and that is his size: small crabs, small lobsters, baby shrimps, fry of other species...

Yes, besides you say it, it is an absolutely incredible predator.

Yes. As it is a fast growing fish, it eats a lot to ensure this growth. He eats all day, he eats everything, and everything that comes in front of him. By doing this, not only does he take a lot of animals from the reef that surrounds him, but he also prevents these species from reproducing since he eats them most often when they are still small, that is to say say in the juvenile stage. It also deprives natural predators of their prey. So it has a phenomenal domino effect on all this mass of reef biodiversity. The impact is significant because when it targets juvenile parrotfish, for example, which are coral-cleaning fish, they harm the corals themselves. Indeed, the algae growing on the corals will be cleaned less and the corals more prone to die or disease.

Tell me, this is a formidable threat to biodiversity...

It is a formidable threat which is identified but which is unfortunately not perceptible today because it takes place under water.

Why not noticeable? Yes, because it takes place under water...

The general public has no idea what is happening underwater. When he sees the blue sea on the surface he doesn't know that a real fight is going on below between all these species...

Yes, but we are starting to know it with men like you, divers, fishermen...

Yes, I'm glad it's beginning to spread, but it's still not enough. Everyone should contribute by taking an interest in the subject, being a little more afraid of this exotic fish. For me it is more fascinating than terrifying and, as everyone is beginning to know, it is also an edible fish.

More fascinating than terrifying, you say, but what you are telling us here is terrifying for biodiversity!

It's terrifying, yes, but that's the story of the species. It is not the first exotic species to invade an environment, and it is certain that over time nature will find a mode of adaptation to this phenomenon. The role of man in all this is to repair his mistake since it was he who introduced this fish into the Atlantic. So it tries to slow down its expansion to give nature time to adapt and organize itself so that the damage to biodiversity is reduced to a minimum.

Can we control these populations today? It is said that the only known predator today is man.

Exact. It is a fish that has no natural predator. Groupers, moray eels, barracudas and sharks are known to attack it.

I read a testimony from a diver who said "I saw a moray eel swallow a lionfish" is that possible?

It is possible, but it is incomplete. The diver should also have said if the lionfish had already been hunted, injured and offered to the moray eel to try to entice it to eat it or if it attacked it on its own. The first hypothesis is probably the correct one. There are few certified cases of attack on live lionfish by natural predators in the Caribbean. All this to tell you that there are potential predators in the Caribbean but that today you should not count on them to act effectively, the only effective predator is man.

We talk about Guadeloupe and Martinique but we should talk about the Caribbean or even the Greater Caribbean to fight against this predator which is invasive, as we have seen, concerted action is needed.

Absolutely, and we are far from it. I discovered during my research that there are a number of actors in charge of this subject. You have players of international rank, that is to say that the United States, Mexico and the United Nations themselves, on behalf of all the other states, have come together in a Committee which is called the Comité Régional Poisson-Lion in French [in English] and which also takes advice from international experts. The objective of this Committee is to label good practices on the organization of the fight against the lionfish invasion. In Guadeloupe and Martinique, the organizations in charge of this fight are the directorates for the development of equipment and the development of housing, the DEALs. They are relayed on the ground by the managing bodies that are the reserves and also the associative world. There are a lot of people who are starting to work in this direction, but you really need the support of the population.

Let's go back a bit to Guadeloupe and Martinique, are there areas that are much more infested than others, for example?

So here, I'm going to bring you my testimony as a hunter. It is clear that the areas where there is reef are more infested than those where there are stretches of sand because the lionfish still needs the environment of the reef: that is where it goes. find its prey.

For example, it was said that near Schoelcher in Martinique...

In Martinique, the entire leeward coast [west editor's note] is infested, but this does not mean that there are not as many lionfish on the Atlantic side. These are less easy areas to fish or dive and therefore we do not go there. But have no illusions, the fish is there. It's like in Guadeloupe: there are all along the coast. The Bana tree crescent, where we go fishing more because it is prohibited because of chlordecone, but also because it is exposed to the wind, is full of lionfish.

You just said the word chlordecone... It's a voracious fish, it's a fish that's good to eat, but is this fish really edible because they say “Be careful with chlordecone”.

So it is absolutely necessary to remove an ambiguity on this point. This fish is perfectly edible and one of the best fish you can find. The fact that it is likely in certain cases to be contaminated by ciguatera or chlordecone is independent of the species. If it is not edible, it is because it has been found in a ciguatera or chlordecone zone. But that has nothing to do with his lionfish character. Just eat fish that comes from authorized fishing areas.

So it's a voracious animal as we've seen, it's an absolute predator and a ruthless invader, which has only one weak point, its excellent taste. You gave me some recipes that make me salivate…

I'm actually a bit of a gourmet and the interest I had for this fish beyond the fact that it allowed me to hunt something other than the species I traditionally hunted, is that on arrival you happy ones. It is an easy fish to work with, once you have removed its spines. You don't have to worry about them, to remove them you just have to be a little careful and skilful. You have a fish that is magnificent to work with, the fillets come up with practically no bones, the cooking is extremely fast, you can prepare it and eat it with any sauce. By traditional recipes, or you can give free rein to your creativity. It can be eaten raw, in carpaccio, in tartar, and it's always a pleasure.

And even on skewers! You brought us bones here and I saw that restaurant owners were making skewers with these bones.

Yes, it's a presentation trick that has the merit of stimulating people's imagination and getting them more interested. There are two ways to make the skewers, either you clean them or you fry them with their skin on, and they are even prettier.

In any case, this book is interesting insofar as it gives scientific, popular information (accessible to the public), and also recipes, which is pleasant. Tell me, how can we finally turn millions of lionfish that are present in the waters of the Caribbean into an opportunity?

I think we have to make good against bad luck with this fatality. We will not be able to eliminate it since the eradication of the lionfish is now a figment of the imagination. You have to get organized, and to get organized, you have to turn this threat into an opportunity. We see in the United States businesses that start on the lionfish, you have people who give conferences, you have people who sell hunting equipment, you have artists who give free rein to their inspiration, you have gadgets, phone cases, figurines in aquariums... Finally, as it is a fish that is magnificent and stimulates the imagination, trust you will always have people to find a way to enhance it other than by 'food.

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