No new spears are being issued to scuba divers as environmental watchdogs review the Cayman Islands’ groundbreaking lionfish culling program.
The program, which involves licensed divers spearing lionfish on Cayman’s reefs, has been credited with reducing the numbers of the invasive species in the islands’ waters.
There have been some unintended consequences, however, including concerns that moray eels and snappers are showing more aggressive behavior toward divers as a result of having been fed from spears.
The Department of Environment says it is not putting any new spears into circulation until it has reviewed the program. About 400 spears are on lease from the department to lionfish cullers.
Licensed cullers are supposed to report their catch statistics to the DoE, but only some have been doing so on a regular basis.
Bradley Johnson, a research officer with the DoE, said culling by divers is the only proven way to control the population, and he insisted the spearing program is vital to combating the threat posed by lionfish.
But he said Cayman and other Caribbean nations were entering “new territory” with public culling programs and the DoE wants to “pause and review” before expanding any further.
“This has never been done. We are blazing a new trail and we have to make sure we do it right.
“We haven’t lost sight of the big picture that culling is the only effective way to reduce lionfish numbers. This is more about cautious management than anything else.”
Anyone licensed and in possession of a spear will still be able to cull lionfish. Licensed cullers without spears will be able to cull under the supervision of specified dive operators.
The DoE is urging all active cullers to report their catches and asks anyone who has a spear and is not using it regularly to turn it in.
The concept of spearing lionfish to beat the invasion is not up for debate. The questions the DoE is considering center on the management of the culling program and whether to proceed with an expansion of volunteer cullers or to consider other options.
The issue with moray eels and snappers showing more aggressive behavior toward divers is not central to the review but is under consideration. Mr. Johnson said it was a “spin-off” concern that had to be considered.
Feeding lionfish, or any food, to other marine life is illegal, and cullers are urged to use containment devices, take their catch out of the water and sell or eat the fish.
The DoE is still licensing new cullers and will accept applications from divers for spears, though it is advising applicants not to go ahead with the required police check until they are notified that new spears are available.