Lionfish threat not to be taken lightly
Story Created: Apr 7, 2012 at 10:59 PM ECT
Story Updated: Apr 7, 2012 at 10:59 PM ECT
When I heard of the first sighting of the Indo-Pacific lionfish off Tobago, it seemed we had finally joined the rest of the Caribbean and Central America in hosting this venomous predator. Though there have been no further sightings, this is not a threat to be taken lightly.
I recently conducted marine research in the Bahamas and Jamaica, two places where lionfish have been wreaking havoc. The devastation caused by the lionfish was unbelievable; small reef fish were almost non-existent and the lionfish were everywhere—on coral reefs, in seagrass and even in mangroves. Their voracious appetites combined with the ignorance of their prey, their prolific nature and their lack of natural predators has meant that lionfish are increasing rapidly in numbers, up to 40 per cent of the total predator population in some places.
A recent paper showed in just two years in the Bahamas, increases in lionfish coincided with a 65 per cent decline in the lionfish's 42 Atlantic prey fishes. Another paper noted a large adult lionfish consumed over 20 small fish in 30 minutes. Not only do lionfish diminish the reef fish in total, but herbivorous fish such as parrotfish are also depleted, allowing seaweed and algae the chance to overgrow the reef. Without prompt action, increasing lionfish populations are likely to have similar impacts on fish populations closer to home.
There are very few barriers in the sea, and given the huge populations of lionfish in the rest of the Caribbean, it is only a matter of time before they enter our waters in huge numbers. We need to use this precious window to put an effective response plan into place.
I've read that local fishermen, dive operators and the public are being educated as to what the lionfish looks like to enable the reporting of sightings. We should go one step further by implementing a "kill on sight" policy as lionfish can release thousands of eggs every few days. These fish are slow-moving and very easily caught using hand spears. Dive operators should be provided with hand spears (cheap and prevents reef damage by spear guns), puncture-resistant gloves and catch bags to take on dives in case of sightings.
Trinidad and Tobago should also begin to import frozen lionfish from other islands, thereby developing a commercial market and taste for the fish—they are absolutely delicious. We can also use nature to help us by allowing the recovery of populations of potential native predators of lionfish,
such as large grouper and sharks. Both
types have been heavily overfished, so
this could have a win-win result.
Other Caribbean islands have put extensive and innovative programmes in place to deal with this threat. The Cayman Islands use local divers that are specially trained and licensed to remove lionfish. They also recently began advertising "lionfish safari" dive packages, which involve having a professional chef prepare dinner using the lionfish that your party caught earlier that day.
In Jamaica, fishermen are encouraged to catch lionfish as it not only eases strain on the fisheries but also creates a new market from which the fishermen and economy can benefit. In the Bahamas, lionfish sell for US$12 a pound, which is higher in price than most other fish. Bermuda, the Bahamas and the USA hold biannual competitions, offering prizes to the team catching the most lionfish, the largest lionfish and the smallest lionfish (one of the winning boats caught 345 lionfish in one day).
Without prompt action to control increasing lionfish populations, there will be negative long-term implications for the structure of Atlantic marine communities, as well as the economies that depend on them. Our reefs have already been damaged by deforestation, pollution, overfishing and climate change; we should try to prevent the lionfish from also taking its toll.
Diva Amon (marine biologist)
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