COVID gives invasive species respite from cullers

The culling of green iguanas and lionfish were halted temporarily during the COVID-19 crisis

As many as 16,000 invasive green iguanas are thought to have been spared from the hooks, snares and pellets of cullers due to an unanticipated six-week suspension of the programme, brought on by COVID-19 shelter-in-place regulations, according to the Department of Environment.

Prior to the introduction of hard and soft curfews in March, approximately 470 iguanas a day were being culled.

“Assuming efforts had remained largely stable through the six weeks of closure, we might have expected that an additional 16,000 or so iguanas would have been removed,” wrote DoE officials in the department’s June/July 2020 edition of Flicker magazine.

April and May are “critical months” for cullers, the DoE said, with “breeding iguanas more active as they seek a mate”. During those months, their visibility increases due to the reduction in leaf cover brought on by the dry season. This combination of factors is beneficial to cullers as iguanas, which have grown “more skittish” in the presence of hunters, become easier to spot.

However, this year, the coronavirus shelter-in-place restrictions coincided with the breeding period.

“Unfortunately, those 16,000 iguanas and the others remaining may have now had an opportunity to breed,” said the DoE in the Flicker article.

“Reports of eggs in adults at the culling station have already been received,” the article noted, along with evidence that some adults may have already laid their eggs.

On 5 May, the culling station at the George Town landfill reopened and 57 cullers were granted soft-curfew exemptions, based on how they performed earlier in the year, the article said.

Culler Darvin Ebanks takes aim at a green iguana. – Photo: Taneos Ramsay

Darvin Ebanks is one of those cullers.

Dressed in camouflage hat and jacket, thick, protective denim jeans, and a pair of black boots, and armed with an air-rifle, Ebanks hunts for iguanas in mosquito-infested red mangrove swamps.

“I’ve gotten very used to seeing [green iguanas], so when people come with me, they will be looking, looking, looking, and I’ll shoot one down and they’ll say ‘I never even saw it,’” he said.

The daily intake of the 57 exempted cullers is still shy of pre-COVID numbers, at approximately 425 iguanas, of which Ebanks normally contributes a handful.

“If I take in nine, 10 [or] eight, it is OK because the numbers add up,” said Ebanks. “The thing is, this is something that is constant, it is not [as if] in a week or two or a month it shuts down. So, if I don’t get 20 or 50 or 100 like the others have, it doesn’t bother me.”

Catching iguanas before they nest

Between 1 Jan. and 24 March this year, 68,963 iguanas were culled, taking the total number to 1,192,489 since the programme started in October 2018.

“An intensive culling effort is needed to make up for lost time and to remove iguanas before the nests are in the ground,” the Flicker article stated.

“Given the predicted reduction in economic and tourist activity, iguana culling may represent a lucrative alternative, and the DOE is looking forward to registering additional Caymanian cullers in the coming months once movement restrictions are relaxed further,” the department said.

The DoE pays cullers a bounty of $2.50 to $5 per iguana.

“You can make a living from this,” said Ebanks, though he has other streams of income that supplement his earnings from culling. “It was about 500 cullers when we started, and … quite a bit of them made quite a bit of money and are still making some good money, since we had the break in March.”

Culling at sea

Culling instructor Drew McArthur displays the largest and smallest lionfish caught by him in a Cayman United Lionfish League Tournament last year. – Photo: Katie O’Neill

The invasive lionfish has also enjoyed an extended break from cullers.

Lionfish have for several years wreaked havoc on the coral reefs and fisheries of the Central American and Caribbean waters. But, unlike the case of green iguanas, no official culling programme exists for lionfish.

Locally, the Cayman United Lionfish League organises privately funded tournaments.

“There is a lionfish-culling tournament that happens here every three months, or it used to happen before the diving got stopped,” said Drew McArthur, a lionfish-culling instructor.

It has been more than two months since McArthur last donned his dive gear and plunged into the sea in search of the ravenous fish. Diving was among the many recreational activities that were halted as part of the government’s COVID-19 restrictions.

McArthur said the restrictions were imposed just as cullers were getting ready to participate in another tournament.

“The coronavirus has given the lionfish a vacation from being hunted by the likes of myself, I suppose,” he said.

The reefs off Cayman’s north wall are popular spots for lionfish, which every year enjoy a break from the cullers, who are unable to access the dive sites due to annual inclement winter weather.

“Come round about March, April time when the diving in the north starts opening back up again, what we find is that the reefs have been populated again with a lot more lionfish,” said McArthor. “Having let go for three months, I think we are going to find there is a lot more [lionfish] on the reefs.”

McArthur said he applauds the government’s efforts to keep the community safe amidst the global outbreak of COVID-19, but he does not believe that giving divers access to the sea would jeopardise the country’s progress in its fight against the virus.

“I would like to see a little bit more thought going into when diving should have been opened, bearing in mind that the sport itself is safe with regards to the coronavirus,” he said. “It is super unlikely that you are going to catch it when you are under the water and, providing that you use your own equipment, then there are no cross-contamination opportunities.”

Although no one knows for sure the current state of the lionfish population, McArthur believes the restrictive conditions have created a ‘paradise’ for the invasive fish.

“They’re in this utopia at this moment where they have no predators and they have lots of food,” he said. “They eat a lot and they breed a lot, so lots of them are getting bred, and then, of course, they eat more.”

Lionfish have an insatiable appetite and prey on a wide variety of other fish, such as critically endangered groupers and commercially viable fish.

“There’s many reasons why the lionfish population needs to be kept in check,” said McArthur. “I think one of the reasons that will appeal to many Caymanians is that the more lionfish there are out there means the less fish that they are going to be able to go out there and catch. What it is also doing is preventing other species from populating the reefs.”

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