As y’all know I like to pay tribute to people who help animals. Last month Mason and I visited the Puget Sound Goat Rescue. For September, I interviewed an environmentalist who is passionate about saving the reefs off the Florida coast. Meet Gus Sims.
The Lionfish Hunter
Gus Sims is an Emmy-winning cameraman. He shoots all sports, but I met him through drag racing. On most race weekends, Gus roams the pits, the starting line or return road and shoots drivers and racecars. He should smell like burning rubber, steaming clutch discs, brake cleaner. But he doesn’t. He smells like the sea.
Gus looks like he spent a lifetime on the water too. He’s tan, ageless with sun-bleached hair and a toned physique. For the most part, he’s a quiet man. That is until he starts talking about scuba diving.
Gus and I have been carpooling together for the past year. You learn a lot about someone when you ride an hour to and from racetracks in cities all over the United States. That’s when I learned how talking about scuba diving enlivens him. When Gus isn’t at a racetrack, he’s underwater. He dives in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. And he’s helping to save his backyard by hunting lionfish.
Why should we care about the lionfish? Native to the South Pacific, the lionfish don’t belong in our waters, but somehow, whether by hurricane or as a stow-away under a ship’s ballast or released from some rich guy’s aquarium, they have arrived. And they are destroying the balance of marine life from Alabama to North Carolina.
Lionfish are striking, exotic, flamboyant creatures. They wear burnt-orange or maroon stripes and dazzling fins that flow around their bodies like designer scarves. But don’t let their beauty deceive because they are venomous creatures. An even bigger problem is their appetite. They eat everything, but maybe most importantly they devour the small fish that keep the reefs clean. Already taxed by higher water temperatures and bleaching, our coral reefs are struggling to survive, and if they fail, they’ll take an entire marine ecosystem down with them. Some experts predict it would end the ocean’s fishing industry.
Another issue is the lionfish doesn’t have a predator, meaning nothing along our shorelines can kill them. And they just keep reproducing. A female lionfish can have as many as 2 million eggs per year. The only reason these invaders haven’t caused an underwater apocalypse is because of men like Gus Sims, aka lionfish hunter, aka badass.
Q&A with the lionfish hunter
When was your first encounter with the lionfish?
I saw them in the Bahamas 10 plus years ago. I noticed them in the Keys about 6-7 years ago. That’s when I became active in eradication. You have to be certified by State of FL to kill and remove them from the sanctuary. Other places in the Gulf and Atlantic can harvest anytime without restrictions…meaning anyone can hunt the interlopers.
Approximately how many lionfish have you killed?
I’d guess 30 in 3 years. I’ll take one that I killed and use it as a teaching tool to show people, kids, other divers. Some people hear of the problem but show-and-tell is just one more element to helping the public understand.
How would you describe a lionfish?
They are beautiful creatures but bad Mama Jama’s for the reef ‘s ecosystem.
Have you ever been stung by one? Did it hurt?
No. But a small prick may result in swelling and a few days of pain. A more intense sting can be painful and limit mobility for a while.
The lionfish is edible. Do you ever eat them?
There are many ways to prepare them. There is a lionfish cookbook and everything. We usually just fillet and chop raw and make ceviche. Dip is good.
Sometimes we will take our kill to REEF (Reef Environmental Education Foundation.) They dissect the animals and study stomach content. We are always trying to help gather any type of information that will help combat the problem.
What’s the reward?
I do believe the work we are doing is paying off. The one I killed yesterday was the first one I have seen in a while. That doesn’t mean they’re not out there, just that there are enough of us looking and trying to deal with the problem. And we are seemingly doing a good job.
We will always be battling the issue because of how many eggs are laid each year. All we can do is try and maintain the population and not let it get out of hand again. One kill is one less.
(For more about Gus and his underwater adventures, you can visit his website right here.)