PADI backflips on lionfish spearing courses

Scuba diving training organisation PADI has done an about-face on qualifying instructors to teach students how to cull lionfish. 

Brad Smith, training manager of PADI Americas, said over the years PADI had approved several types of underwater hunting speciality courses, of which lionfish control was one. But in September last year, he said the organisation dropped its lionfish culling course as part of its efforts to eliminate all hunting and collecting specialities from its schedule of approved courses. 

“Back in early fall, we did some evaluations in respect of approving underwater hunting specialities,” said Mr. Smith, adding that the organisation supports a no-take approach to marine conservation. 

However, as of earlier this month, the organisation reinstated its Lionfish Tracker Distinctive Specialty course as one of its instructor courses. 

“We recently re-evaluated the policy, especially in light of the destructive nature of the invasive lionfish and determined that it was worth making an exception,” Mr. Smith said. 

The exemption applies only to the Americas and the Caribbean, not to Europe and the Asia-Pacific. Lionfish is a native species to the Indian and Pacific oceans. 

Mr. Smith admitted that there had been quite a bit of reaction throughout the Caribbean from PADI’s decision to discontinue the lionfish hunting courses. 

The PADI Lionfish Tracker course, which was introduced in 2011, was authored by PADI staff instructor Stephanie Wallwork in the Turks and Caicos Islands and reviewed by Mark Hixon and Helen Thompson from Marine Conservation Biology department at Oregon State University.  

That course certifies instructors to train scuba divers how to catch lionfish with nets and euthanise them. It does not give training in the use of spears, which are now commonly used in the Cayman Islands to kill the invasive species, following an exemption in the local Marine Conservation Law that allows divers to use spears only for the purpose of culling lionfish. 

At Ambassador Divers in Grand Cayman, instructor Sarah Jane Jones wrote a course that involves culling lionfish with spears, which PADI has approved, meaning that Ambassador can teach instructors how to do a course to train their students to use spears to catch lionfish. 

Jason Washington of Ambassador Divers said his dive operation can train instructors in that one-off PADI-approved course to teach divers to use spears to kill lionfish and that PADI has instructed that no new speciality courses, like the one Ms Jones did, were being accepted by PADI. 

Divers in Cayman do not need a PADI distinctive speciality card to hunt lionfish. Under the amended Marine Conservation Law, the Department of Environment can train divers how to spear lionfish and certify them with a lionfish culling licence. Once a diver gets this licence, he or she can then apply for and get a spear licence, following police clearance. Under the terms of their culling licence, anyone using a spear for any other purpose other than killing lionfish would be committing an offence under the Marine Conservation Law. 

Ambassador’s Mr. Washington welcomed PADI’s change of heart on certifying dive instructors to teach lionfish culling techniques and described the organisation’s original decision to drop the course as “a knee-jerk reaction”. 

“I understand that diving for abalone and lobsters isn’t good for fisheries all over the world, but our case is different,” he said, adding that controlling the local lionfish population through culling was vital for Cayman and Caribbean reefs. 

Other dive companies throughout the Cayman Islands also teach lionfish culling courses, usually combining the PADI course with the Department of Environment’s programme that includes instructions on how to spear a lionfish. 

At DiveTech in West Bay, five instructors are certified to teach divers the PADI netting course. Jeni Chapman of DiveTech said she was pleased the instructor training course had been reinstated because it meant more instructors could avail of the course. DiveTech incorporates elements of the Department of Environment’s training course on using spears to cull lionfish. 

T.J. Staples at Ocean Frontiers is also qualified to teach instructors the culling course and she also combines the PADI version with the DoE version. Ms Staples said she had trained several of Ocean Frontiers’ instructors on the PADI course and only found out the organisation had dropped that speciality when those instructors applied for their certifications from PADI and were turned down. “They didn’t even tell us,” she said, adding that she had written a strongly-worded letter to PADI on the issue. 

Cayman has about 400 resident cullers who have undertaken the DoE course. Cullers can either get a spear licence and a spear themselves or go on lionfish hunting dives with local dive operators who are licensed in turn to carry spears and allow divers to use them under the dive instructors’ supervision. 

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