Pro divers may get spears to catch lionfish

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Professional divers could be
allowed to hunt lionfish with spears, but recreational divers will have to
continue to catch them with nets.

The Department of Environment is
talking with dive operators in Cayman about the possibility of licensing dive
professionals to use spears to kill the venomous fish that has invaded Cayman
waters.

James Gibb, a research officer at
the department, said staff of the DoE were in early discussions with dive
operators to find a faster way than nets to capture the fish.

“We have been talking to the dive
masters and dive instructors about the possibility of doing training in the use
of pole spear devices,” Mr. Gibb said.

“They don’t always have time to
stop and spend 10 minutes catching a lionfish with a net. They’re not like
weekend divers, they are working for a living and they’re our biggest defence
against the lionfish invasion,” he added.

Under the Marine Conservation Law,
it is illegal to take any creature from the marine parks in Cayman. The law’s
regulations were amended in 2009 to certify divers to use nets to catch
lionfish, which were appearing in increasing numbers on the islands’ reefs.

It was advised at the time to keep
the lionfish alive and on ice until they were delivered to the Department of
Environment where they would be killed using a mixture of clove oil and
alcohol, after which they would measured and a sample of their DNA would be
taken.

But the number of captured lionfish
grew so large that the DoE changed tack and is now advising people with
lionfish culling licences that they can kill the lionfish, eat them if they
wish and send the measurements of the fish and information on where they were
caught to the department for
data-collection purposes.

Mr. Gibb said allowing
non-professional divers to spear lionfish was not likely because of safety
issues and potential damage to coral. “Dive masters have better skills underwater,
they do this day in and day out,” he said.

There has been a rising clamour
among the dive community to allow divers to use spear guns and spear poles to
catch the lionfish.

Mr. Gibb said he is asked about 10
times a day why divers are not allowed to use spears and spear guns to kill
lionfish.

“The worry is that, (a) people will
abuse it and (b) that it becomes a new toy to play with underwater. We have to
think about more than just spearing fish,” he said.

Dive instructor Aaron Hunt, who has
been stung several times while catching lionfish and who almost lost his finger
after receiving a particularly venomous sting this year, said he was delighted
to hear the Department of Environment was considering letting dive
professionals use spears to catch lionfish.

“We’re extremely pleased to hear
this. It would make life easier for all of us. It would mean we don’t have to
trail around these giant nets we take with us on a regular basis. It’s like
trailing a sail behind you. It’s not a mild inconvenience, to say the least,”
he said.

Mr. Hunt said using spears would
enable professional divers to kill the lionfish and leave them in the water.
“I’d be happy to never surface with another lionfish,” he said.

He agreed that licensing to spear
lionfish should be limited to dive professionals. “The main concern is people
might abuse the privilege and use it to go out to go out on the reef and take
grouper and other animals that need to be protected,” he said.

Capturing lionfish in nets can be a
slow and laborious task, especially as lionfish are often found in crevices on
reefs, making it difficult to manoeuvre the nets to catch them. Once caught,
the lionfish are usually transferred to a bag, leaving the nets free to catch
any other lionfish the diver comes across. But divers say using spears would be
much quicker and more efficient than using nets.

At Don Foster’s Dive in George
Town, which has recorded at least 200 lionfish caught by divers using its
tanks, operations manager Sergio Coni said it would be more efficient to use
spears rather than nets.

“The nets are good but it’s getting
a bit more complicated because of the number of lionfish out there now.,, The
problem with the nets is the dive instructors are working and cannot really be
diving with people and catching fish at the same time. You could get distracted
from what you’re supposed to be doing,” he said.

Mr. Coni added that while some dive
instructors return to the site of where they spotted the lionfish, after
returning their dive group to the boat, there was no guarantee the lionfish
would still be in the same place.

Divers have removed hundreds of
lionfish from Cayman’s reefs since the species was first spotted in Little
Cayman in February 2008. The fish are not native to the Atlantic or Caribbean
and have no known natural predators in those seas, although there have been
efforts to encourage grouper and other sealife to consume them.

Divetech in West Bay has been
running weekly lionfish-hunt boat dives since last year. Co-owner of the dive
operation Nancy Esterbrook said she supported the Department of Environment
approving spears to be used to catch lionfish. “I think all dive operators
are,” she said.

“The easier we can make it in terms
of having something that staff can carry at all times, the better. The nets are
a bit cumbersome and not conducive to using on working dives with guests, so by
having an easier/smaller tool in hand, the opportunity to catch lionfish should
be improved.

“I think all good plans need to be
executed, then you find out what works and streamline from them. The DoE and
Marine Conservation Board were very proactive in allowing lionfish to be caught
in the first place, so this enhancement to the programme will only serve to
help keep the culling going,” Ms Esterbrook said.

Lionfish can spawn up to 30,000 eggs
at a time. Spearing a female lionfish will not release fertilised eggs into the
water, as the eggs are fertilised externally by a male lionfish.

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Lionfish continue to grow in numbers on Cayman’s reefs.
Photo: File
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