There are about 400 licensed resident lionfish cullers in the Cayman Islands, but many are failing to inform the Department of Environment of how many fish they are catching and where they’re finding them.
Bradley Johnson of the Department of Environment said it was vital that cullers let the Department of Environment know this information so the department’s researchers can build up a database that will better help to control the invasive species.
“We’re still collecting data. That is one of the requirements of everyone who culls – to submit catch reports,” said Mr. Johnson. “People don’t remember to record data or record all they catch and when.”
The information is needed so that the DoE can document how effective culling efforts are in Cayman.
“If people aren’t submitting the data about culling, then we have no way of knowing whether it’s working or not.”
Back when lionfish were first found in local waters and the culling efforts began about five years ago, the DoE required anyone catching lionfish to hand them over. At that time, the fish could only be caught with nets as it was unlawful to use a spear while diving. The DoE staff euthanised the captured fish in a mixture of clove oil, alcohol and sea water, measured them and took DNA and tissue samples. However, as the population of the fish exploded in the Caribbean, the numbers being caught in Cayman also increased dramatically and the department could no longer keep up that practice.
The Marine Conservation Law was subsequently amended to allow divers to use special trident spears to cull lionfish – and only lionfish – and the DoE, in exchange for supplying the spears and training and certifying cullers to kill lionfish, requires those divers to supply the department with some essential data – the size of the fish they caught and where they caught them.
But it seems not too many divers are complying with that arrangement.
The terms and conditions of the culling licence state: “The licensee must report all catches of lionfish and provide details such as name of culler, date, time, location, number of lionfish and approximate sizes, and dive company (if applicable). For size approximation: S means less than 6 inches, M means 6 to 12 inches, L means over 12 inches. [For example:] John Smith, 1st January 2011, 9am, Trinity Caves, 15 lionfish, 2S, 8M, 5L.”
Anecdotally, it appears that culling is working, at least at popular dive sites at which divers are reporting far fewer lionfish sightings.
Jeff Varga, a dive master at Ambassador Divers who teaches divers to lionfish hunt, said during a lionfish culling certification class last week that he couldn’t guarantee that the would-be lionfish cullers taking the course would even see lionfish at the sites to which he planned to take them, as many sites had been cleared of the lionfish – at least temporarily. Lionfish breed prolifically and can very quickly repopulate a cleared area.
However, there are still plenty lionfish at less frequented sites and at sites at which there are no moorings. Since recreational diving is usually to a maximum of 100 to 120 feet, lionfish at deeper depths are not being culled.
Lionfish, which are native to the Indo-Pacific oceans, have no natural known predators in the Caribbean and Atlantic, so currently divers are the only line of defence against the species. Lionfish have enormous appetites and consume large numbers of other fish, mostly juvenile reef fish, thus upsetting the delicate eco-system balance on the coral reefs.
Mr. Johnson said submitting the needed information to the DoE is not complicated and can be submitted via email or on Facebook or by any other means a person chooses to use. “It doesn’t really matter they get the information to us, so long as they get it to us,” he said.
Some dive masters who lead dives on which lionfish are caught are better than others at submitting reports to the DoE on catches, it’s often down to the individual, said Mr. Johnson. “Some are a little more lax with feedback and some keep good notes. It depends on the person,” he said.
The basic information the DoE requires is: The total number of lionfish culled on the dive
The size of each lionfish – how many under 6 inches, how many between 6 and 12 inches, how many over 12 inches
How many cullers on the dive, to avoid duplication of information
“It’s just three lines,” said Mr. Johnson, adding that divers should get in the habit of sending the information as soon as the dive ends, so that the data is still fresh in their minds.
As well as enabling the Department of Environment to build up a database of information about the prevalence of lionfish and the effectiveness of culling, it also help the department identify sites where more lionfish are being seen, so that a particular area can be targeted.
People who are certified as lionfish cullers can either get their own spears from the DoE, which involves applying for a lionfish spear licence and supplying police clearance, or can use spears on dive boats of operators licensed to carry spears that their lionfish culling certified dive customers can use.
Cullers are urged to send their information about their catches to [email protected] or call 949-8469.