The hunt for red lionfish

A dive shop is seeking red lionfish hunters to help curb the invasion of the vociferous fish now inhabiting Cayman’s reefs.

Dive Tech owner Nancy Easterbrook said the company is ‘on a mission’ to help cull the lionfish which are in danger of overrunning the reefs.

Susan Dasher

Dive Tech instructor Susan Dasher with a captured lionfish.

‘We try to catch them whenever we go down, but it’s hard to do that sometimes when you’ve got guests on board… We wanted to find a more proactive way to engage residents here who are divers to come out on this mission,’ she said.

Hence, the dive company will hold two-tank dives on Saturdays for residents who want to help hunt down the spiny fish with the huge appetite.

Dive Tech staff are certified to catch lionfish by the Marine Conservation Board. They hope to be joined by residents and divers from other operations who have also been given permission to catch the fish or who can help spot them.

People who have permits to catch lionfish from the Marine Conservation Board and nets are requested to bring their licence cards with them when they check in for the dives.

The dives, which cost $20, include tanks, weights and dive computers.

‘We’re not doing this for profit. The charge covers the fuel and the tank costs,’ Mrs. Easterbrook said. ‘Our mission is to find the lionfish and catch them. I doubt we can eradicate them, but we have to start working hard to keep their numbers down.’

She added that Dive Tech divers catch two to three of the fish each day.

The Department of Environment takes possession of the fish that are caught and kills them, using a combination of Eugenol – clove oil – alcohol and sea water.

DoE staff warn that the lionfish can inflict a poisonous and painful sting and so need to be handled with care.

They have supplied divers who are certified to catch the fish with special nets with which to catch them, although many divers choose to use Ziplock bags instead because they are less unwieldy to carry on a dive.

Dive Tech plans to send divers down in V-formations, covering a specific area of the reef on each dive and methodically removing any lionfish they find.

The infestation of lionfish is thought to have started when six of the fish were released from an aquarium into Biscayne Bay in Florida during Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

Since then, they have been found along the east coast of the United States from Florida to Massachusetts, as well as in Bermuda and throughout the Bahamas and in other Caribbean nations such as Turks and Caicos, Jamaica and Cuba in depths ranging from two to 500 feet.

Hundreds of the lionfish have been found in Little Cayman, Cayman Brac and Grand Cayman in the past 18 months and divers are finding more each day.

Lionfish are capable of reproducing from the age of one year, and can lay up to 30,000 eggs each month.

There are no known natural predators of lionfish in Cayman waters, and until the marine life adjusts to this new introduction, the Department of Environment want to try to control the population as much as possible.

To book a place on one of Dive Tech’s Saturday lionfish hunts, call 946-5658. Check-in time is 12.30pm, and the dive trip is from 1pm to 5pm. Sightings of lionfish should be reported to the DoE on 949-8469.