Efforts to keep the invasive lionfish numbers at bay could receive a significant boost as a result of a new scuba diving specialty course now being offered by local dive operators.
The Department of Environment and Marine Conservation Board have approved CITA watersports members teaching the Invasive Lionfish Tracker Course, a PADI distinctive specialty course.
The one-day course, which will be available to both residents and visitors, includes general background information on lionfish, including their progressive invasion of the northwestern Atlantic and Caribbean and explains why action needs to be taken to control their population and how to safely and humanely capture and euthanise these fish.
The course includes two dives for practical application of the information. Nets are used to catch lionfish.
Although this might seem to contradict all the basic rules recreational divers are taught from the outset – never to harm or harass marine life – and although it might seem to be in contravention of the local Marine Conservation Laws, which prohibit the removal of anything from the sea, whether living or dead while scuba diving, these rules have had to be reviewed in light of the lionfish problem.
Lionfish were first observed in Cayman waters in February 2008 and since then their population has been increasing steadily. Because they are native to the Indian and Pacific oceans, this invasive species has no natural predators in these seas. They are what are known as gluttonous feeders, eating and eating until they can eat no more, explains James Gibb, research officer with the Department of Environment. They feed indiscriminately, not limiting themselves to any particular species. They also reproduce alarmingly quickly, laying up to 30,000 eggs every four days. These factors combined make them a very serious threat to the balance of the marine ecosystem as they can potentially eliminate a whole section of the food chain. The consequences of leaving the lionfish population unchecked would be huge, not only for local fishermen but also for the dive industry, which is one of the pillars of the Cayman tourism industry.
The DoE has been running lionfish culling courses since March 2009, issuing attendees with a culling licence on completion. This licence exempts the bearer from certain marine laws. However, the recent approval for CITA members to teach the PADI specialty course means the course will be available to many more people through various dive operators.
Nancy Easterbrook, owner of Divetech, describes this approval as a significant accomplishment, saying “This gives us the ability to teach it every day. A lot of guests visiting here really want to help out with the lionfish problem.”
In other parts of the Caribbean the lionfish have had a far more serious impact on the marine ecosystem. “Because we caught it early, we are doing a pretty good job of keeping the lionfish populations down. When you compare us to the Bahamas we are doing well,” says Mr. Gibb, describing how in the Bahamas the reefs are almost devoid of fish other than lionfish.
Any action that can be taken to control their populations is therefore welcomed and in addition to the PADI Lionfish Tracker specialty course, several dive operators also organise lionfish hunts and tournaments and local restaurants are adding lionfish to their menus. The DoE is also investigating other means of controlling their numbers but, at present, removing them from the sea remains the safest and most effective way to keep them in check.