Lawmakers want to put a price on the heads of the invasive lionfish species in the Cayman Islands.
North Side independent Member of the Legislative Assembly Ezzard Miller brought a private member’s motion to the Legislative Assembly calling for a $5 bounty for each lionfish caught in local waters, with the money being paid out of the Environmental Protection Fund, which holds more than $43 million.
All members of the Legislative Assembly present at the Thursday, 23 November, meeting voted in favour of the motion, which is an advisory proposal that is not binding on government.
Environment Minister Mark Scotland, who supported the motion, said because of the recently adopted Framework for Fiscal Responsibility, which legislators signed into law earlier this month, taking money from the environmental fund may require permission from the United Kingdom government.
However, he said that he did not see why the UK government would object to cash from the fund being used in this way as the ongoing encroachment of the lionfish could be considered a “natural disaster”.
Under the terms of the Framework for Fiscal Responsibility, Cayman cannot have a supplementary budget during the 2012/13 budget year, unless it is to fund recovery from natural disasters.
Mr. Miller described the invasion of the lionfish, which have voracious appetites for juvenile reef fish, as a “very serious threat to the marine ecosystem and the environment in the Cayman Islands” and he called on government to get more involved.
At the moment, with support from the Department of Environment, most of the efforts to cull lionfish in local waters are done by private sector dive operators, Foster’s Food Fair IGA and restaurants hosting culling tournaments and sponsoring diving trips to sites where recreational and professional divers kill the fish with specially licensed spears.
Lionfish is the only marine life that can be legally caught and killed by licensed divers in marine parks, following an amendment to the Marine Conservation Law in 2008.
Mr. Miller pointed out that while it seemed unlikely that lionfish, which is not native to the Caribbean, could ever be eliminated, efforts should be stepped up to reduce their numbers.
He suggested individuals who earn or supplement their income by catching conch and lobster could be trained by the Department of Environment to catch lionfish. This would not only have the effect of reducing the numbers of lionfish, but would benefit the lobster and conch populations, Mr. Miller said.
Once caught, the lionfish could be handed over to the Department of Agriculture, Mr. Miller said, and then sold to restaurants to recoup the bounty cost.
“I think the government needs to get more directly involved and offer an incentive to people to assist in culling these lionfish because I have seen photographic evidence of areas where the Department of Environment makes a consistent and determined effort to cull lionfish in a particular area and do their best to keep it under control, compared to an area where there is no culling activities, and it is dramatic,” Mr. Miller said.
He said the Environmental Protection Fund was the obvious source from which to pay bounties.
The Cayman Islands government set up the Environmental Protection Fund in 1997 for the purpose of acquiring land for conservation purposes and environmental projects. It receives between $4 million and $5 million a year, gathered through departure taxes charged to travellers leaving via airplane or cruise ship.
Although some of the more than $43 million in the fund has been used to purchase land in Barkers and for the Cayman Brac Parrot Reserve, little money has gone for its intended purpose and the fund is counted in government’s overall reserve in annual budgets.
Mr. Miller said he was not suggesting $5 should necessarily be the bounty amount, but that the government could fix the amount to whatever it deemed appropriate.
Fellow independent MLA Arden McLean from East End said this would not be the first time a bounty had been offered for pests in Cayman, recalling a time when his father would hunt agoutis, known as Cayman rabbits, that were destroying farm crops. He said the government would pay him two shillings and a shotgun shell for the head of each rabbit delivered to the old government building in George Town.
He supported the proposal to pay people to hunt lionfish, saying tourism was as important to Cayman’s economy nowadays as farming had been at that time.
Minister Scotland told Mr. Miller the government supported his proposal for a bounty and the suggestion that the money come from the Environmental Protection Fund.
Explaining why it was vital to tackle the problem, Mr. Scotland told legislators that lionfish reach maturity within one year and can release up to 30,000 eggs every four to six days. The species, which originated in the Indo-Pacific Oceans and was first sighted in Cayman in 2007, have no natural predators, so human intervention is the only way to remove the creatures.
A research report called “Coping with the Lionfish Invasion: Can Targeted Removals Yield Beneficial Effects” from the Central Caribbean Marine Institute in Little Cayman and the University of Florida, published in July, found multiple culling efforts at one site reduces the lionfish population significantly.
Minister Scotland said that report showed that voluntary cullings by dive masters and divers were working, but that it was necessary to monitor culling efforts to determine the level of effort that needed to be sustained at particular sites.
He said the Department of Environment was inviting people to submit proposals for areas that should be targeted for lionfish culling.
“We want to make sure again that anyone who is going to be involved in such a programme would have to be trained,” Mr. Scotland said.
The species, which originated in the Indo-Pacific Oceans and were first sighted in Cayman waters in 2007, have no natural predators, so human intervention is currently the only way to remove the creatures from the reefs.