Fadilah Ali: The Lionfish of Bonaire

Fadilah Ali has spent the last five years researching invasive lionfish around Bonaire in the Carribean and is equally at home diving in the clear warm waters or in a lab analysing lionfish stomach contents.

Name: Fadilah Ali

Habitat: Coral Reefs

Location: Bonaire, Caribbean

Twitter: @FadilahZAli

Bio: Originally from Trinidad and Tobago, I have spent the last five years conducting research on the lionfish invasion in the Caribbean. I am currently finishing my PhD at the University of Southampton in Marine Biology and Ecology

Tell us about your life in Bonaire?

Although I have spent most of my life living on small islands, I have had the pleasure to call Bonaire my home for the last four years. A small Dutch island, measuring 111 square miles, Bonaire lies a mere 50 miles off the coast of Venezuela. Bonaire is undoubtedly unique. Protected as a marine park since 1979, the Bonaire National Marine Park boasts of some of the highest fish diversities within the Caribbean region and has some of the most breath-taking views; both above and below water.

Your research focuses on the lionfish, tell us more about your study species?

The Indo-Pacific red lionfish (Pterois volitans) is a venomous, voracious predator characterised by reddish-brown striped bodies, large ornate pectoral fins and fleshy tentacle outgrowths above their eyes. They bring true meaning to the term ‘generalist’ as they live anywhere from 1 – 300m in coral reef, mangrove, seagrass and estuarine habitats. Their generalist diet also extends to their diet as they pretty much eat anything that would fit in its mouth, ranging from small fish, shrimp, crab, lobster and even octopus and stingrays!

Lionfish are quite well known as an invasive species, why are they such a problem?

Their reproductive output is remarkable; as they can release about 10,000 eggs every 4 or 5 days. This coupled with the lack of natural enemies and the naivety of native prey to their many feeding strategies contribute to lionfish’s success and makes them one of the worst marine invaders of all time.

Lionfish cause the majority of their impact based on their what they eat. Thus my research has focused on monitoring their diet and how it changes over the time in order to to predict their impacts, i.e. how will local industries and ecosystems be affected based on the proportion of commercially and ecologically important species being consumed.

So what is being done in Bonaire to tackle this problem?

Throughout the Caribbean region, numerous lionfish control and management strategies have been initiated in a means to quell the future spread and growth of the lionfish population, but they all vary in their success rates. Bonaire has one of the most effective and successful lionfish management strategies; which is due to the involvement of dedicated volunteer lionfish hunters and partnerships with the nature governing agency (STINAPA Bonaire); the on-island research station (CIEE Bonaire) and local dive shops.

ABOVE: Fadilah’s office.
"Living on a small island, you soon get to know everyone on the island, and with time, I became the ‘lionfish girl’ or ‘Mama Lionfish’ to the local fishermen."

Living and working on a Caribbean island sounds idyllic, did you find it easy to get started? 

Moving over to a new place can be especially daunting, so the relationships you form essentially dictate how much you would enjoy your experience. Living on a small island, you soon get to know everyone on the island, and with time, I became the ‘lionfish girl’ or ‘Mama Lionfish’ to the local fishermen.

Whilst in Bonaire, the first and most important relationship I formed was that with the CIEE Research Station Bonaire, a small research facility that also offers study-abroad semesters to American University students. After working as a volunteer intern for one summer, I soon became addicted to Bonaire and kept returning year after year, working for CIEE as an intern, with housing and usage of their laboratory supplied in return, whilst gaining valuable experience as a marine biologist. A local dive operator was also instrumental as he adopted my project and offered his boat so we could take hunters out to the nearby island of Klein Bonaire. After 2 years we have repeated this project four times with thousands of lionfish being removed.

Being a diver who was a bit useless at spearing things, lionfish hunters soon became my best friends as they were masters at this craft and would supply me with endless carcasses and also accompany me on boat trips out to catch lionfish, even paying their own way! Finally, my partnership with the nature-governing agency STINAPA allowed for an important exchange of knowledge and co-operation to achieve the greater goal of lionfish eradication.

Can you tell us a few of your favourite things about life in Bonaire?

The conservation ethic: For such a small island, the dedication to conservation is surprising but refreshing. During my short time on the island, Bonaire has made great progress towards becoming plastic-bag free and have recently established a recycling plant which is a massive achievement for any island, especially one so small. There are also regular beach, fishing line and dive clean-ups which reiterates the local dedication to conservation.

The people and their culture: Although Bonaire is a Dutch island, the island is very diverse and has its own local language called Papiamentu which is a combination of Portuguese, Spanish, English and Dutch. Everyone operates on a relaxed ‘island-time’ and their friendly easy-going nature is especially welcoming. This diversity translates into the music, dance and most importantly the food!

Never a dull moment: Despite being so small, there is so much to do in Bonaire; diving, snorkelling, hiking, biking, climbing, windsurfing, kitesurfing, kayaking, camping, caving are just some of the many examples. It is also the perfect opportunity to learn something new.

The views: Crystal blue water, a myriad of underwater life, gorgeous multicolored sunsets, coral beaches, majestic flamingos, basking iguanas, curious roaming goats and donkeys, bats and birds feasting on cacti; a blooming kibrahacha tree or a bountiful shimaruku tree are examples of the many beautiful sights one can enjoy living on Bonaire. Even after a hard day of work in the lab or diving, the most refreshing thing is to enjoy a sunset on Bonaire whilst sitting on the waterfront; hearing the waves vibrate over the old, broken coral washed up on the shore.

LEFT: Fadilah underwater with a lionfish off the coast of Bonaire (photo: Paulo Bertuol). RIGHT: Fadilah disecting lionfish.
"Volunteering is a good way to become involved on the island and also meet other people."

Bonaire sounds fantastic, but are there any downsides to your work?

The Arid climate: Bonaire is a desert island with miniscule amounts of rainfall which for some is a good way to work on your tan, but for others who wear 5mm full wetsuits, it can be a bit of a nightmare!

There’s not much to do if you don’t like being outside: There are no shopping malls, cinemas or conventional entertainment type venues on-island and the night life is quite relaxed, except for a Friday night when the two nightclubs play music til beyond 11pm!

Remote: Although Bonaire has quite good links to the USA and Holland, if something is broken and needs to be replaced, it can sometimes take quite a long time and depending on the item it may cost ridiculous amounts of money to be brought in.

TOP: Lionfish off the Solomon Islands (Wikimedia Commons). MIDDLE LEFT: Fadilah with a huge lionfish at Bonaire carnival. MIDDLE RIGHT: Fadilah leads groups out on dive trips to collect lionfish for her research. BOTTOM: Breathtaking sunsets in Bonaire.

And lastly, if you could share just a few pieces of advice with anyone interested in marine conservation or research in the Caribbean?

1) Embrace the experience and culture: Learn Papiamentu (the local language) since the locals appreciate your efforts, even if its simply a few words to say hi, please and thank you. Bonaire is such a multicultural island, and the people are very proud of their heritage and have numerous festivals throughout the year such as Carnival (where there are parades and parties), Rincon Day (the celebration of the oldest settlement of Bonaire where there are re-enactments of times during slavery and opportunities to participate in local dance and enjoy local dishes, Bonaire Day (a parade of flags along with local food and music), Taste of Bonaire (where all the local cooks descend to the main square with an abundance of food from all around the world).

2) Dive: Bonaire has arguably some of the best diving in the Caribbean and is often referred to as a diver’s dream or a shore diving paradise. If you aren’t already certified to dive, Bonaire is the best place to learn as the underwater classroom is amazing and you can capitalise on some great discounts. If you are already a diver, explore the diversity that the island has to offer: boat, shore, night or wreck diving. Experience coral spawning or bioluminescence whilst diving or give back to the environment by participating in a clean-up, fishing line removal or coral restoration dive.

3) Volunteer: By volunteering, not only do you help an organisation or individual, but you simultaneously gain valuable experience. During my time on Bonaire I assisted Sea Turtle Conservation Bonaire (STCB), STINAPA’s bat research programme, STINAPA Junior Rangers, the Jong Bonaire after-school programme and the Light Motion Sensor Program just to name a few.

To go into more detail; STCB often require volunteers to assist with beach patrols, turtle tagging, fishing line and beach clean-up exercises and the local animal shelter is always on the look out for volunteers to help with the maintenance of their facilities and also to exercise and play with the animals. Furthermore, with the bat research I gained experience in setting up mist nets, removing and handling bats, measuring, ringing and identifying different species of bats and their reproductive condition. Volunteering is a good way to become involved on the island and also meet other people.

4) Try new things: In addition to trying the local language, indulge in the local food, even if it seems a bit out of your comfort zone! Whilst in Bonaire be sure to try kabritu stoba (goat stew), iguana, funchi (local polenta dish), limunchi (lemonade drink) and cadushy (a liqueur made from cactus). Aside from diving, Bonaire has ideal windsurfing and kite-surfing conditions and offers a perfect opportunity to try a new sport.

5) Embrace the simple life: Try to rid yourself of modern day luxuries and dependencies and try to spend more time outside. Even though it is so small, Bonaire has a lot to be discovered and appreciated.

Thanks Fadilah!

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