Little Cayman hosts lionfish awards

Dive resorts in Little Cayman have taken the battle against the invasive lionfish to heart, as was evident at the first Little Cayman Lionfish Awards for 2011. The event took place 19 January and was hosted at Southern Cross Club. 

Categories awarded included Catch Per Unit Effort, Highest Catch to Miss Ratio and Highest Attendance to name a few – with the highest honours going to Bob and Gay Morse from the Pirates Point Resort for Most Number Of Fish Caught. They won a well-deserved round trip ticket to Miami and a dive computer for their valuable contribution to the cause. 

Lionfish were first found in the Cayman Islands in Little Cayman by local divemaster Dottie Benjamin in 2008. Since then, the invasive species has made the waters off all three of the Cayman Islands its home. 

Event organiser and President of the Sister Islands Tourism Association Neil van Niekerk said the voluntary efforts of the divemasters needed to be recognised for their significant contribution to the management of lionfish in Little Cayman.  

“Without these efforts the reef would become homogenised to the extent that there would be too little biodiversity on the reef to differentiate Little Cayman from the rest of the Caribbean who are afflicted by the invasion. Little Cayman’s Bloody Bay Marine Park is the jewel in the crown of the Cayman Islands,” he said. 

Central to the awards were the efforts of the resident scientists at the Central Caribbean Marine Institute’s Little Cayman Research Centre, along with the directorship of Tom Frazer, a professor from the University of Florida, who tracked the efforts of the divemasters during the past year alongside their own comprehensive study of the lionfish population density in Little Cayman. 

“Many people from multiple Caribbean nations are discussing removal of lionfish as a management response, with detractors claiming that such efforts are misguided. Until now, neither group has access to any quantitative and reliable measures of the efficacy of targeted lionfish removals,” Mr. Frazer said.  

He said lionfish removal efforts in Little Cayman provided compelling evidence that targeted removals can be successful. 

“[T]argeted removals can and do reduce numbers of lionfish and shift size frequency distributions of remaining fish toward smaller individuals that contain less prey, important reef fish in particular,” Mr. Frazer said. 

He said this indicates that targeted removals represent a viable option for shifting the direct impact of lionfish away from highly vulnerable components of the ecosystem. 

Mr. van Niekerk said the dive community in Little Cayman has always felt a strong connection to addressing the lionfish problem, as lionfish were first discovered in Little Cayman. 

“We had been culling individually since 2008, however, in January 2011 we decided that a more comprehensive approach was needed. We then formed a meeting of all the resort and dive operator management along with the Department of Environment and CCMI. It was then decided that a co-operative community cull was the best way forward,” Mr. van Niekerk said. “Our core focus is on the Bloody Bay Marine Park, as this is where our tourism product lies. We do however also cull the Preston Bay Marine Park and various areas outside the Parks too.” 

The culls follow a very structured approach, with teams of divers dropped along the wall and then swimming to a central location in an organised fashion. 

“Culls are made using the Hawaiian Sling method sanctioned by the DoE, and catches are held in watertight containers developed in Little Cayman to restrict blood from entering the water and attracting sharks,” Mr. van Niekerk said. “However, the effort does take a considerable amount of time, effort and expense on the part of the dive resorts, which is why the Sister Islands Tourism Association has approached the government for assistance in keeping the programme running. 

“It is extremely difficult to motivate people to do this on a volunteer basis and we recognise the need for government intervention to save this marine park,” he said. “However, we as stakeholders understand the need for this to continue and we will do so for as long as it is possible financially.” 

Although conservation efforts are at the heart of the lionfish cull, the fish do not go to waste. 

“All of the fish are processed by CCMI and University of Florida the day after the cull and fish are then divided between the resorts’ kitchens to be prepared for our guests,” Mr. van Niekerk said. 

The awards attracted the attention of local and international sponsors with Cayman Airways, Scubapro, Blue Ocean Art, Jacques Scott Liquors, Divers Supply, Divetech and Cobalt Coast Resort, Sunset House, Trident Diving Supplies, Little Cayman Beach Resort, Pirates Point Resort, Conch Club Divers, Paradise Villas and the Southern Cross Club all providing prizes for the event. 

lionfish

Little Cayman’s dive opperators are banding together to hunt the invasive lionfish. – Photo: File