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Today's Date: 30 September 2014
Last Updated: 30 September 2014 00:03:33 EST
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Managing invasion of lionfish

From left.  Jason Belport, Gay Morse, Neil van Niekerk, Savanna Barry, Bob Morse, Bill Christoffers and Marc Pothier. – Photos: Submitted Courtney Platt/CourtneyPlatt.comStacy Frank Courtney Platt/CourtneyPlatt.com

New research report from Central Caribbean Marine Institute shows sustained culling of lionfish works to protect the reef systems and manages the levels of infestation.  

 

The lionfish’s day of reckoning may be at hand; however,a modest reckoning it may be. These beautiful voracious feeders, with a prodigious productive rate of up to 30,000 eggs every four days, and no natural predators, are an acknowledged threat to every aspect of life in the small island nations throughout the Caribbean. Here in the Cayman Islands, these reef-killer fish are under siege and the results are telling.  

A research report titled Coping with the Lionfish Invasion: Can Targeted Removals Yield Beneficial Effects from the Central Caribbean Marine Institute in Little Cayman and the University of Florida Effect published 12 July clearly concludes that multiple culling efforts at one site reduces the lionfish population significantly. Divers on the Island will tell you that there are fewer lionfish in Bloody Bay Marine Park thanks to the community effort. 

The report, appearing in Reviews in Fisheries Science (Vol 20, issue 4) states that “The lionfish removal efforts on Little Cayman provide, for the first time, compelling evidence that targeted removals can and do reduce numbers of lionfish.” 

In other words, CULLING WORKS! 

The report goes on to support even more encouraging potential outcomes; “Such a shift in predation pressure would likely benefit economically and ecologically important reef fishes, including juveniles of endangered Nassau grouper and other groupers, along with herbivores such as parrotfishes, surgeonfishes, and damselfishes.” 

This is promising news to the local inhabitants, resort owners, and dive operators of Little Cayman who have been fighting the infestation of these invaders through regular organized vigilante “culls” since this grassroots social movement to control the lionfish began to build momentum in January 2011.  

A group of community leaders including Bill Christoffers, owner of Conch Club Divers and member of the Marine Conservation Board; Marc Pothier, manager of Paradise Villas and the Hungry Iguana; Jason Belport, manager of Little Cayman Beach Resort; Neil van Niekerk, manager of the Southern Cross Club and president of the Sister Islands Tourism Association; Gay Morse, manager of Pirate’s Point resort; Bob Morse, dive instructor at Pirate’s Point resort; Peter Hillenbrand, owner of Southern Cross Club and chairman of CCMI; as well as CCMI Research staff including Savanna Barry and Morgan Edwards (from the University of Florida and co-authors of the report) and Katie Lohre formed weekly culls by early 2011 to hunt lionfish. Each dive operation on Little Cayman alternates in providing a dive boat once a week for volunteers, which is restricted to dive masters and instructors for safety and efficiency.  

What is unique on Little Cayman is the collaboration between scientists and the community in these culling efforts. The scientific team at CCMI uses lionfish caught by the community to study and to collect data on growth rates, sex and reproductive success. Local business operators and dive instructors need valid science based outcomes to muster support to present for the sustained control of the lionfish. Partnerships like this between scientists focused on research and communities focused on commerce are important to the future of the Caribbean. 

The culture of protection in the Cayman Islands that extends to reef preservation, the endangered grouper and other native fish populations is standard operating procedure for the Islands and their bio-diverse ecosystems. So it should be no surprise that local diverse, determined not to sit by and see their livelihood and the native fish population decimated by lionfish, energetically emerged in both Little Cayman and Grand Cayman, to combat the invasion that had burned through the Bahamas and other parts of the Caribbean.  

Jay and Nancy Easterbrook, owners of Divetech on Grand Cayman, have been proactive in their efforts to contain the lionfish infestation, providing regular lionfish cull trips for divers. They also have started a Facebook group called Cayman Cullers that is open to anyone who is interested. Jeni Chapman, dive instructor at Divetech, has discussed the infestation and history of the lionfish invasion. Dora Valdez, of Cobalt Coast Resort, demonstrates how to safely handle the lionfish for preparing haute lionfish cuisine and enjoying the catch. 

For Sharon van Niekerk, divermaster at Reef Divers on Little Cayman, hunting lionfish is a question of job security. If the reefs and native fish populations disappeared and dive tourism decreased, Sharon will be looking for employment elsewhere. She has been stung two times and has spent approximately CI$500 in medical costs due to hunting lionfish. She is not alone. Large, venomous dorsal, pectoral and anal spines have sent several volunteer cullers to the hospital for treatment. Loss of digits is a very real threat. 

According to Savanna Barry (research assistant at CCMI) as of July 2012, 3,450 lionfish have been removed from Little Cayman waters since the culling project began, and the average number of spears in the water is seven per week for this year. This represents only the community culling numbers and does not include the catch of individuals who cull on their own. Bob Morse, of Pirate’s Point on Little Cayman, has culled over 2000 lionfish on his own since the invasion project began.. 

Bill Christoffers, owner operator of Conch Club Divers, reports the biggest haul of lionfish on any one cull in January 2012.  

Dottie Benjamin, legendary dive master and conservationist at Reef Divers – Little Cayman Beach Resort, received the “Female Lionfish Hunter of the Year” award for 2011 for numbers of lionfish caught by an individual female. Dottie captured the very first lionfish in the Cayman Islands in 2008, then netted or speared 40 in 2009, 220 in 2010, and 177 in 2011 when the official community culls began on Little Cayman. Dottie remembers how she felt when a guest reported the first lionfish sighted in Little Cayman waters at Barracuda Bite in Little Cayman in 2008 and presented her with a blurry inconclusive photograph as proof. 

“No way”, I said to myself. “A lionfish? Here?” Dottie described the fear that quickly took hold as she went in the water to search for this reef-killing monster. She imagined a big hungry lionfish waiting for her. Their reputation clearly preceded this arrival. Data from the Bahamas was proof of the devastating impact an unchecked lionfish infestation could have on native fish populations and the reef systems. 

Dottie is credited with capturing this first lionfish in the Cayman Islands and that was in Little Cayman. She recalls in hindsight how small the invader was, a juvenile or intermediate, but to her it looked huge and dangerous. Dottie retrieved a dive mask box from the dive boat, then made all her guests remain on board while she captured the lionfish using a snorkel to herd her first catch into the box.  

Dive guests marvelled at the seductive little monster trapped in the box. The fish was sent off to the Department of the Environment where scientist Croy McCoy proceeded with research and investigation.  

All lionfish caught in the Cayman Islands were initially required to be sent to the DoE. Patrick Weir, divemaster and lionfish hunter, remembers the first lionfishlionfish sighted and killed in Grand Cayman. He was present and photographed the event when DoE researcher James Gibb arrived and speared the lionfish. This spear method was faster and more efficient than Dottie Benjamin’s dive-mask-snorkel herding method.  

However, spear-fishing restrictions presented a serious problem as more and more lionfish began to appear all around the Islands within the year after the first sightings in 2008. The Caymans had not dodged the bullet. An invasion was imminent and growing.  

Lionfish hunters had to become creative to capture the creatures. Oversized aquarium nets, catch bags and gloves required multiple divers to capture one lionfish. The process was slow and cumbersome.  

With no other natural predators except humans, the lionfish could reproduce faster than they could be controlled. Without faster and more efficient means of bagging lionfish, locals believed the battle against the growing numbers of lionfish would be futile. 

A bold decision by the Marine Conservation Board DOE in response to requests by dive operators armed lionfish hunters with spears! In August of 2010, spears were allowed in Cayman’s waters, specifically for lionfish culling only. The DoE issues pole spears on behalf of the MCB to licensed divers who must attend a training course to be eligible to apply for a licensed spear. The MCB proved diligent about concerns for diver safety and any abuse of the privilege to hunt lionfish exclusively, with fines and penalties for any infractions. 

 

Dive operators and local divers eagerly sought permission from DoE to obtain spears and organise lionfish culls in order to curb their impact of the lionfish invasion. 

Suddenly, a single diver using a spear could bag 20-40 lionfish in one or two dives. The potential to turn the tide of the invasion so to speak became a reality overnight. 

Lionfish hunts, derbies and culls took on the appearances of social networking. Local divers and groups like the Aquaholics Anonymous on Grand Cayman began hunting lionfish with a vengeance. 

Enthusiasts began designing their own more efficient catch buckets that would enable one diver to spear and transfer a lionfish into a container without ever touching the fish. 

John “Dry Rot” Ferguson and his Fisherkings on Grand Cayman proudly displayed their weapons of lionfish destruction for photographer Courtney Platt. Dry Rot demonstrated his “Stuff and Go” five gallon catch bucket in a Skype interview with the authors fashioned from a heavy plastic water jug, a filleted funnel where the lionfish is shoved into the bucket still on the spear, which automatically removes the fish when the hunter pulls the spear out back out through the barbed funnel. 

Dry Rot claims that the “Stuff and Go” contraption he demonstrated has held up to 83 lionfish at one time.  

The positive results of the culling efforts on Little Cayman are detailed in the CCMI report, COPING WITH THE LION FISH INVASION, which is available for purchase from the publisher, Reviews in Fisheries Science, at www.tandfonline.com. 

The hopes on Little Cayman, as Carrie Manfrino, director of Research and Conservation at CCMI notes is that further research will be funded to help understand whether the efforts to remove lionfish will have a long-term positive impact on the native fish populations.  

In light of the current research it is also hoped that individual proposals presented by local interests to the Minister of Environment for funding sustained control programs will gain momentum. The DoE is looking at better ways to tackle the lionfish problem, including hiring dedicated teams to cull the waters for lionfish. 

Jason Belport, of Little Cayman Beach Resort, summed up the problem in simple words; “The pristine biodiverse ecosystem around Little Cayman is the gem of the Caribbean. The Cayman Islands is a national treasure. And it is our collective duty as citizens, scientists and government leaders to work together to protect and preserve our national treasures.” 

 

Reported from Little Cayman and Grand Cayman by James V. Hart, Stacy Frank and Courtney Platt. 

 

The authors 

James V. Hart is a screenwriter with numerous writing and producing credits including Hook!, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Contact, Sahara, August Rush and others. While working on a lionfish thriller screenplay he became interested in the impact that lionfish are having on the reef systems and on people as a geo-political and social problem in the small island nations of the Caribbean. Hart lives in NYC when he is not diving. 

 

Stacy Frank has been an avid scuba diver since 1973 and lives to dive. She has a master’s degree in Industrial and Organisational Psychology and resides in Las Vegas with her husband, Dr. Barry Frank, who is an Oral and Maxillofacial surgeon. It became clear during research for a lionfish thriller screenplay that our Caribbean reefs are being threatened by many factors, including the invasive IndoPacific lionfish and now is the time to face the nemesis.  

 

Courtney Platt is a Caymanian professional photographer who has made over 5,000 dives in Grand Cayman since 1983. He is a personal witness to the effect that over-fishing has had on our diving tourism product. An ardent proponent to reversing that trend, he is equally concerned about the additional burden that the lionfish invasion represents to the reef fish recovery effort. 

Divers on the Island will tell you that there are fewer lionfish in Bloody Bay Marine Park thanks to the community effort. 

 
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