More than 600 lionfish caught

Divers are continuing to catch lionfish throughout Cayman with more than 600 of the beautiful but voracious fish being captured and killed since they first started invading local waters.

The fish were once a rare find, but now divers are reporting seeing them on a regular basis.

‘Since we started [collecting lionfish in mid-2008], we have caught about 600 and that includes ones that have been turned in, that we have caught ourselves or that other people have caught and captured,’ said James Gibb of the Department of Environment.

The department keeps records of each lionfish that is caught, measuring each one and taking DNA samples to keep track of how the invasive species is spreading throughout the Cayman Islands.

Dive Tech, the West Bay-based dive operation, goes on weekly lionfish hunts on Saturdays and catches at least two on each dive, according to its owner Nancy Easterbrook.

‘We have caught a total of 29 on the boat trips, usually about two per trip and have spotted and marked some more,’ she said.

‘The boat trips were full with a wait list so I think some people gave up trying to get on them, but for example this week and next week, we have lots of room and need more bodies,’ she added.

Initially Dive Tech had planned to continue the lionfish dives until the end of October, but if more volunteers are willing to take to the water to hunt the spiny fish, the dives will continue.

More than 220 divers have been licensed to catch the lionfish. Because Cayman waters are a marine park, catching fish on the reef while diving is usually illegal, but the Marine Conservation Board has given a special dispensation to help eradicate the threat of the invading lionfish.

The DoE is training divers how to handle the fish, which can deliver a painful wound with their venomous spines.

Experts say completely wiping out lionfish in local waters is impossible, but efforts should be made to try to control the population until such time as the environment and other sea life adapts to them.

Lionfish, which are not native to Caribbean waters, pose a threat because they have a huge appetite and feed off juvenile and small fish on the reefs. Native to the Pacific and Indian oceans, they multiply at a fast rate, laying up to 30,000 eggs each month.

Studies have shown that lionfish can wipe out sea life on a reef in just a few weeks.

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.