San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Hungry Lions, Sea Cows Inhabit the Caribbean

The Caribbean waters of Costa Rica are seeing an increase in two interesting species: one a beautiful but dangerous newcomer, and the other a once familiar face that almost disappeared but seems to be making a comeback.

Without a doubt, the new king of Costa Rica’s Caribbean reefs is the red lionfish, and now its reign has begun on the Pacific as well. Not so long ago, there were no lionfish on Costa Rica’s reefs.

Originating in the Indo-Pacific – on almost the exact opposite side of the world – these beautiful but problematic fish first appeared in Costa Rica about two years ago, after spending more than 10 years spreading from an aquarium-escaped Miami population. They are now said to be found as far as the northeastern United States and Brazil.

They appeared on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast a few months ago, seemingly delivered again by humans, as they are thought to be unable to transit the fresh waters of the Panama Canal. No one really knows how this happened, but it is not good for the native reef species of Costa Rica.

You see, the lionfish is voracious. It just eats and eats. And it eats the young of many different species. Costa Rica’s reef creatures have not had time to evolve a way to deal with lionfish, and the country’s reefs are losing many members of the community – shrimp, crabs, baby fish and who knows what else? Coral holes that used to be home to an assortment of residents are now inhabited by groups of lionfish.

And it’s getting worse. They are spreading everywhere, like an underwater plague. Tourists must be warned countless times every day along the coast to be careful of the scorpion-like sting of the lionfish’s spines.

The lionfish has spread to every known reef of the Caribbean. The little-known deep reefs seem to hold the biggest ones, about the size of a cat. Many nooks and crannies of the reef hide caves full of lions. No one knows how much worse it can get.

And no one seems to know what to do about it. Lacking direction, many things are being tried. Some are hoping they will just go away. Others are killing lionfish on their favorite reefs.

Still others are having beach barbecues to cook up the fish; they say it’s tasty. Many are hoping Costa Rican restaurants will start serving up león frito or perhaps león a la parrilla (fried or grilled lionfish). This may be the best way to save our reefs.

It really seems impossible that we could get rid of all of them. This year has been unusually free of rain and waves on the southern Caribbean coast, which has probably helped the lions go berserk.

Likely, the only chance for Costa Rica’s reefs to maintain their natural and native biodiversity is for humans to begin tending reefs and taming lions.

Manatees Make Comeback on Caribbean

A manatee comeback in Costa Rica could mean more jobs – not to mention manatees – on the southern Caribbean coast.

These lovable sea mammals, bigger around than a cow or a horse and about as long as a compact car, are for-real sirens of the order Sirenia, which includes manatees and dugongs. The “sea cows” already support the economies of places like Crystal River, Florida, and San San Pond Sak, Panama, which were visionary enough to give manatees protected areas, enforce the rules and make local communities stakeholders.

Sea cow

The manatee is a more welcome sight on the Talamanca coast.

Manatees used to range all over the Caribbean and tropical Americas, but habitat destruction, boat propellers, pollution and overhunting took care of that. Just a few years ago, they were a rare sight in the Caribbean waters of Talamanca, in southern Limón province. Many people hunted them for the “29 kind a sweet meat” that some locals liked to eat. They hunted them until not one hunter could find one manatee.

As people began to dive the waters, and then come see dolphins, and then fish for tarpon, the hunters found easier, more lucrative work in tourism. And started eating more chicken. And stopped hunting manatees. And the manatees came back.

But perhaps the biggest reason the manatees came back is that a short swim away, in Panama’s San San Pond Sak wetlands, is a protected area where people watch over the manatees, feed them, and educate others.

It seems the manatees know a good thing when they see it, as the San San Pond Sak population is reported to have grown much faster than normal reproduction would allow. Are manatees flocking there because they know people are protecting them from people?

Would manatees flock to Costa Rica’s Gandoca Lagoon, in the Gandoca-Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge, with some help from people? Manatees can now be found in the sea in front of Gandoca Lagoon most days, and they often show up at Punta Mona and Manzanillo. But while the Gandoca, like San San Pond Sak, is perfect manatee habitat, there are few manatees in the lagoon, and those you can find are very wary, probably because no one appears to be protecting these protected waters.

Most locals say the lagoon is being hunted heavily by illegal poachers inside the refuge. Tourists kayaking in the lagoon are treated to the daily sounds of baying hunting hounds as the mangroves are poached. Reports indicate that illegal fishing appears to be a daily and nightly occurrence.

That’s not all. The “protected” seas out front are being poached harder than they have in many years. Dozens of illegal nets on buoys inside the refuge have been the norm this September and October. The famous interspecies-communicating Guyana and bottlenose dolphins of the area, along with turtles and fish and manatees, must navigate a maze of death every day.

Sadly, that’s not all the manatees have to worry about. A couple of days ago, as we looked for manatees off Manzanillo Beach, a group of people with Jet Skis on trailers showed up. They began to blaze over the waters, the reefs and the sea grass beds the manatees seek to graze. After a few hours, a lone park ranger showed up and explained that Jets Skis are illegal in the refuge. After being shouted down by a crowd of boisterous people, the ranger told them to just go farther out, and he left.

The Jet Skis continued as before. Snorkelers left the water. Bathers left the water. Divers did not go out. No manatees or interspecies-communicating dolphins were seen that day.

Costa Rica’s Caribbean needs help protecting its marine heritage. Perhaps its time for nonprofit environmental group MarViva or someone else to help enforce the rules. The Caribbean monk seal is already extinct. It’s time to protect Caribbean waters before a manatee comeback turns into a last-time harvest of “29 kinds a sweet meat.”

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