New tournament series announced
As Cayman’s lionfish cullers gear up for another series of tournaments, anecdotal evidence suggests that natural predators could ultimately help control the expansion of the invasive species.
The Cayman United Lionfish League has announced plans for four tournaments this year as part of the continuing efforts to clear the reefs and curb the unchecked population explosion of lionfish in Cayman’s waters.
Organizers say culling, particularly through organized tournaments, is still the best way to control lionfish numbers.
But they are hopeful that natural predators – particularly grouper, snapper, reef sharks and moray eels – will soon take some of the work off their hands.
Mark Orr, chief conservation officer at the Department of Environment and a founding member of CULL, said fishermen had reported finding unspeared lionfish in the bellies of grouper and snapper.
He said the ultimate hope for CULL, which will host its first tournament of the year on March 1 and 2, is that, at some stage, there would be few fish for them left to hunt.
“Our goal at the end of the day is to send out the same amount of teams and come back with nothing, or close to nothing. The aim is to keep the numbers down until the natural predators take over.”
He said there are signs that is already happening.
He insists there is no evidence that this is connected to divers feeding speared lionfish to snapper, grouper, sharks and eels – a practice that is banned in Cayman and has been blamed for changing the behavior of some predators.
“What that has taught them to do is to follow divers and eat from a spear, not to target lionfish themselves,” said Mr. Orr.
He said the natural predation that is starting to occur has been linked to the fact that the fish are becoming more familiar in the Atlantic.
“Predators were wary of lionfish because they were new. They didn’t know what to make of them.”
He said there is some evidence suggesting lionfish are being found in the stomachs of fish caught at offshore banks in the Caribbean, where no divers are around to cull them.
For now, though, the reports are few and far between. And culling is considered essential to preventing lionfish from taking over the reef. He said the REEF environmental education organization has highlighted organized culls and tournaments as an effective method of dealing with lionfish because they clear large sections of reef completely, removing the top breeders, rather than just picking off one or two during a recreational dive.
The last three tournaments hosted by CULL have yielded around 1,000 fish each. Mobile takeaway business Al La KeVroom is on board for the latest tournament to prepare samples.
“We are not just trying to catch fish, we are trying to spread the word of how good lionfish is to eat,” said Mr. Orr. “If it becomes a major table food in restaurants and homes, that would help for the future as well.”