CCMI seeks grant to continue lionfish studies

Allison Candelmo, CCMI's lead scientist, tags lionfish on Little Cayman's reefs.

Little Cayman’s marine research center has suspended its lionfish tagging program while it waits to see if it will get grant money to continue its groundbreaking research on the invasive species.

The Central Caribbean Marine Institute has been shortlisted for a global conservation grant for its proposal to use hi-tech acoustic tagging to track the movements of lionfish in the Bloody Bay Marine Park.

It is hoped that the research will help hone management plans for controlling lionfish populations in Cayman Islands waters and across the region.

However, a shortage of funds means that the existing research, involving less sophisticated visual tags, is winding down.

Carrie Manfrino, president of CCMI, said the center’s lead scientist, Allison Candelmo, was invited to submit a full project proposal to the International Union on the Conservation of Nature’s funding program for European overseas territories, known as BEST.

“We are incredibly honored to be invited to compete in this important funding program and at the same time, we urgently need the funding to continue our work, which is underfunded this year,” Ms. Manfrino said. “Unfortunately, [even] if we are successful in this final competition, the BEST funding will come next year and we are having to reduce our efforts and activities this year due to a lack of funding.”

Allison Candelmo, right, is responsible for a lionfish tagging project in Little Cayman.
Allison Candelmo, right, is responsible for a lionfish tagging project in Little Cayman.

Up to now, the center’s research has involved simple visual tags. The new project would use acoustic tags fitted to the fish by divers using pole spears. The tags would feed back data to hydrophones located around Little Cayman, providing a much more sophisticated picture of lionfish movements between reef systems and up and down the reef wall.

“The funding would make it possible for us to do some really important work to understand the movement of lionfish. The research would help us determine where, when and how to cull,” said Ms. Manfrino.

Of particular interest is the depth range of the lionfish, information which will help determine whether technical divers or other methods may be required to hunt lionfish outside the range of recreational scuba diving.

“This would be the first time anyone has done this level of investigation on the movement of lionfish using these depth indicators,” said Ms. Manfrino.

The project, if approved, will build on Ms. Candelmo’s initial research, which has detected lionfish movements potentially in response to environmental cues.

That kind of information could help governments create management plans to more effectively target the species, for example by focusing culling efforts on a particular time of day, depth range or lunar cycle.

“Simply stated, the project is designed to find new ways to reduce the number of lionfish on our reefs,” said Ms. Manfrino.

“We have a unique opportunity in Little Cayman because Dr. Candelmo and our research partners have collected data and maintained experimental and control (unculled) sites along the island from the initial invasion. These sites make it possible to improve our understanding of population dynamics and behavior patterns of lionfish that can be applied to develop up-to-date resource management strategies,” she said.

She said much of the existing research has been put on hold while CCMI seeks new funding for the next phase. “We have stopped tagging lionfish and are not investing the energy that we have been in some of the work until we have additional support,” she added.

Ms. Candelmo said the persistence of lionfish as an invasive species in the Caribbean has led to major concerns about loss of biodiversity and is having an economic impact for small island communities because of a significant reduction of native fish.

“Of particular concern for overall reef health and resilience is high predation by lionfish on essential herbivores including parrotfish, surgeonfish and damselfish. Reduction in biodiversity and a phase shift from coral to algal dominance on the reefs can have terrible effects on both fisheries, as well as compromise the attractiveness and therefore value of the reefs in the Cayman Islands,” she said.

A concept note submitted to the funding agency by Ms. Candelmo was pre-selected, meaning she is now invited to submit a full proposal for the project, titled “Improving the management of the invasive lionfish, Pterois volitans, by determining movement patterns and depth preference.”

Last week, she attended the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources’ regional hub workshop in Saint Martin, which provides guidance and support for the full submission.