Lionfish invasion continues unabated

The first lionfish reported on Curaçao on October 27, 2009 was only 4 cm long. It was collected by dive shop Ocean Encounters West

January 6, 2010. Since the first confirmed sighting at Watamula on October 27, 2009, the lionfish count on Curaçao is now at 21 (twenty one). The first reports were of 2 inch juvenile fish but now, two months later, 5 inch fish are being reported, so they appear to be growing fast. Reports have ranged from Watamula in the west to Jan Thiel in the east all along the leeward side of the island. They are presumably also present on the windward coast but there is very little diving there and they would go unnoticed. The first lionfish report on Bonaire came in on October 26 and more than 35 have now been reported.

On Bonaire the National Marine Park is working with the dive shops to respond to the lionfish threat. On Curaçao the Agriculture and Fisheries Service (LVV), Carmabi and Reef Care Curaçao recently sat together to join forces to combat this alien fish species that has been shown to devour up to 80% of the young fish that settle on the reefs. Without any natural enemies, resistant against diseases, and with prey fish that don’t even recognize these fish for the voracious predators they are, lionfish can be expected to be disastrous to the already stressed reef ecosystem, unless we do something about it.

Two more lionfish were spttted by Reef Care volunteers during a Reef Check fish survey at Watamula. One was killed and measured 5 cm

The lionfish are here to stay; there is no way to eradicate them from our waters. These fish live down to 500 ft depths and even if it were possible to kill every one of them down to those depths, new ones would continue to come in with the ocean currents. So, what can be done then? Both Bonaire (more than 35 sightings since Oct. 26) and Curaçao are in the unique position of potentially being able to keep the lionfish effectively in check to a certain extent. Both islands are small, fringed by a narrow reef zone and visited by large numbers of divers. Many dive sites are visited often by enough divers to spot most lionfish coming into those areas. A concerted effort by dive shops and diving community can keep those dive sites clear of lionfish, making them into something like a reserve, an oasis where the regular reef fish can live and grow without being decimated by lionfish.

To be really effective an all-out effort by everyone in the dive community is needed. It will need to be an ongoing effort that cannot stop. Everyone needs to be convinced that killing these invaders is really necessary, never mind that they are such beautiful fish. We humans have shown that we can effectively eradicate fish such as groupers that are much harder to catch than lionfish; let’s put those ‘skills’ to good use for once! Besides, lionfish are very good to eat once they get bigger.

Sighted and photographed at Portomari by dive shop The Dive Bus. Even though lionfish are beautiful fish they need to be killed because of the devastating ecological effects they will have on the reefs

If we can do this and keep it up we can set an example for the whole of the Caribbean. The mostly lionfish free areas will also provide perfect research opportunities to study the effects of lionfish on the Caribbean reef system.

Reef Care, LVV, and Carmabi are working together to coordinate this effort and to ensure the best use of all resources. Reef Care Curaçao has ordered clear vinyl nets that are best suited to catch lionfish. Those nets are expected to arrive by the end of January and will be distributed to dive shops so they will have them ready when a lionfish is spotted. Meanwhile we are asking all dive shops to have all dive masters and instructors carry with them a piece of bright flagging tape. When a lionfish is sighted the exact spot can be marked by tying a piece of flagging tape to a rock or dead coral. Lionfish stay in the same spot for long periods of time so you can go back to the marked spot with the nets later to kill or catch it (a long-handled BBQ fork can be used to kill them for now).
All local divers are also asked to carry a piece of flagging tape with them on their dives to mark the spot of any lionfish they see and then contact either a dive shop or one of the numbers below to report the place and depth so someone can come and catch it.

All lionfish that have been caught or killed should be put into separate Ziploc bags, with location and depth written on it with marker pen, and then put into the freezer. Notify Carmabi, Reef Care or LVV to come pick it up. It is important that we get the dead lionfish so their DNA and stomach contents can be studied to learn more about them. Reef Care is putting together a Lionfish package consisting of nets, flagging tape, sharpie pen and ziploc bags, available for dive shops on request.

To report lionfish sightings please send an e-mail to Paul Hoetjes: paul@mina.vomil.an and Mark Vermeij: carmabilog@gmail.com. Please include:

You can also call or send a text message to Paul Hoetjes at 511-7061 or Mark Vermeij 510-3067. The data will be added to a database of all the sightings.


 

First Lionfish on Aruba reported and captured

Sep 18, 2009.

Captured Lionfish in a bucket on board dive boat.

Byron Boekhoudt, Coastal Zone Management coordinator of Aruba, reports that yesterday diveshop Unique Sports on Aruba went back to the spot where a lionfish had been reported last week and was able to locate and capture it. People from the Aruba fisheries department (DLVV) were alerted and picked up the fish. Byron Boekhoudt will arrange to take samples of the fish for DNA analysis through the REEF organization, who are working with experts to analyze genetic material from Lionfish from all over the Caribbean and Western Atlantic to establish the relationships between local populations.

The captured lionfish was estimated to measure about 20 cm from the tip of its mouth to the fork of its tail. It is now temporarily on display at Buccaneer restaurant, who kindly cooperated and provided their aquarium to keep it until everything is ready to euthanize it and prepare the DNA samples according to the protocol provided by REEF. Only four months ago REEF held a very timely workshop in Bonaire to prepare for the coming of the lionfish in the Dutch Caribbean islands.

Captured Lionfish in aquarium at Buccaneer restarurant in Aruba

Lionfish are considered a dangerous pest (invasive species) because they are not native to the Caribbean, reproduce quickly, have no natural enemies on the Caribbean reefs (except for large groupers which are practically extinct because of overfishing), and devour large amounts of small and juvenile fish dramatically reducing recruitment of new reef fish such as snappers, groupers, grunts and parrotfish. They also have sharp highly venomous spines that cause excruciating pain when stung, and in exceptional cases can even cause death in humans. Lionfish started their conquest of the Caribbean in 1992, presumably after having been released or escaped frorm an aquarium in Florida. First they spread northwards along the coast of the US. Ten years later they jumped to the Bahamas, a few years later to Cuba, and in just the past two years spread among all the northern islands of the Caribbean and Central America. A map of their progression can be found at the following website:

http://fl.biology.usgs.gov/lionfish_progression/lionfish_progression.html

 

Control of Lionfish

Because lionfish spread by dispersal of larvae that can travel great distances in the sea currents, and they live down to depths of 175 m (600 ft), it is practically impossible to completely eradicate them once they are established, with new larvae continuously coming in from distant locations. The only practicable response is to control their numbers by capturing them as soon as they are spotted. They are easily caught using two hand nets (this is much more efficient and less potentially environmentally damaging than spearfishing), and they are good to eat. The information provided at the REEF workshop on Bonaire provided a basis for action plans for the islands. An excellent example of such a plan is the St. Eustatius National Marine Park Lionfish Response Plan which can serve as an example for other islands (download the Stenapa Lionfish Response Plan, pdf 2.6 MB)