Lionfish hunters take to the reefs

 The dive master is suspended upside down, 50 feet underwater, his head hidden inside a craggy crevice in a coral reef of a mini wall off the West Bay shoreline.

A few feet away, another diver is slowly moving in with two clear plastic nets, trying to fit them into the hole to catch the prey inside.

Fifteen minutes later, they’re still there, the dive master trying to coax and prompt the elusive target out of hiding with a narrow metal stick and into the waiting nets.

Eventually, the effort pays off and a feathery-finned, red, black and white striped fish about four inches long is placed inside a bag and transported back to the boat waiting on the surface.

Welcome to the weekly Saturday afternoon lionfish hunt.

Every Saturday, a dedicated group of divers hop on a Dive Tech boat to help cull the rising numbers of lionfish which have invaded Cayman waters.

On most dives, they catch at least two of the fish, which pose a real and worrying threat to the marine life on Cayman’s and other Caribbean countries’ coral reefs.

Numbers fluctuate on the boat, sometimes the trips are oversubscribed and on other Saturdays, there is plenty of room on the boat.

The day before the dive, in which he partook, James Gibb from the Department of Environment helped 17 new divers become lionfish hunters as he fronted the course that includes a Powerpoint demonstration created by the Reef Environmental Education Foundation about the lionfish – what they are, where they’re from, how venomous they are, and how to catch them.

This brings to nearly 240 the number of divers in Cayman certified to catch lionfish.

Two images on the course are particularly striking and visually demonstrate all one needs to know about why it’s vital to ensure the lionfish do not take over the delicate eco-system of the coral reef.

One shows a dead lionfish, its stomach cut open, and beside it a dozen fish that had been found in its stomach. “They’re gluttonous eaters,” Gibb tells the class.

Shrimp, crabs, juvenile grouper and snapper – all have been found in the stomach contents of lionfish.

But the photograph he admits brings home to him the threat the lionfish pose is one of a reef covered with 10 or 12 lionfish. “What really strikes me about this picture has more to do with what you can’t see than what you can. Look at the reef. What can you see? Only lionfish. There’s no other marine life on it,” he said.

The Indo-pacific Red  Lionfish (Pterois volitans) has been seen all along the US east coast, as far north as New York, and as far south as Honduras and Costa Rica and have spread throughout the Caribbean to Puerto Rico and St. Croix since six were accidentally released from a Florida aquarium in 1992’s Hurricane Andrew.

The first lionfish in local waters was caught in Little Cayman in 2007. Since then, more than 600 have been caught.

All captured lionfish must be surrendered in to the Department of Environment where staff measure them and take DNA samples to keep track of how widespread the invasion is and how quickly the lionfish are breeding. They can each spawn up to 30,000 eggs a month.

Only divers certified by the Marine Conservation Board who take a one-hour course with the Department of Environment can join the lionfish hunts. Marine conservation laws normally prohibit divers from taking any marine life from the reefs, but an exception has been made for the lionfish.

The Cayman Islands Tourism Association supplied 100 capture kits, which include two nets and a pair of puncture-proof gloves. The kits cost $100 each.

Trina Christian, executive director of the association, said just five kits remain as most have been snapped up by dive operators and individuals. “We’re planning to bring in more,” she said.

The gloves are important because, as Gibb explained, lionfish have 13 razor-sharp spines on their back, two pelvic spines and three anal spines, all of which can deliver a powerful and painful sting.

Lion-fish stings can cause nausea, breathing difficulties, paralysis, convulsions and collapse. Even death may occur in exceptional circumstances.

If stung by a lionfish, the best treatment is to immerse the wound in hot water for up to 90 minutes until the pain subsides, Gibb advised.