Sun | Aug 25, 2019

Lionfish invade Negril

Published:Saturday | December 14, 2013 | 12:00 AM

Claudia Gardner, Assignment Coordinator

WESTERN BUREAU:Members of the Negril scuba-diving fraternity have expressed grave concern about the growing number of Lionfish that are being spotted off the West End coast in the resort town.

"I am out there every day and this is getting so out of hand," dive instructor at the Dream Team Divers, Sabine Bolenius, told hoteliers at the regular monthly meeting of the Negril Resort Board recently. "You have no clue as to what may happen to your guests jumping in, eventually. They (Lionfish) are taking over the reef. On a daily dive, I see 30 to 40 Lionfish during one dive, which lasts for just 40 minutes."

"And I would love to see NEPA (National Environment and Planning Agency) or some relevant organisation develop a plan because they are taking over the reefs, and as a result, we can soon forget our beach same way. So the West End really has a problem and I don't know if anybody is really aware of it," she added.

Fisheries Division aid

In response, chairman of the meeting, Daniel Grizzle, said the Fisheries Division of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries would have to be called in to help to rid the waters of the pesky Lionfish, which, although edible, have venomous spines, which they use for self-defence.

However, Bolenius said a more organised and concentrated effort was needed due to the Lionfish's tendency to devour all types of fish and sea creatures, which could decimate the island's fish population.

One strategy to assist in reducing the population, she said, was for hotels in the town to make the Lionfish a speciality on their menus.

"Increasingly, we have to take them out and eat them. They do not have any natural enemies and they eat everything in their way. That means no lobster for the future. Conch finish. Sea horses finish. Everything!" she said.

One visitor to the island, Jesse Stovall of Baltimore, United States, who regularly snorkels in the Negril waters, told Western Focus that while he had not yet encountered the venomous predator in Negril, he had a huge scare with the venomous fish in Ocho Rios earlier this year. Like Bolenius, he suggests that the Lionfish be caught and eaten.

"Restaurants and resorts need to promote Lionfish as an exotic delicacy. That would encourage the fishermen to catch them and, hopefully, keep their numbers low because it has no predators other than humans. I have eaten escoveitched Lionfish and I actually enjoyed it more than snapper," Stovall told Western Focus.

FREAKED ME OUT

"I have been snorkelling in many parts of the Caribbean and never seen a Lionfish. The first one I saw was in Ocho Rios, and it freaked me out enough that I immediately swam back to shore. And since then, I snorkel with one eye on the lookout for Lionfish. I have heard stories from friends who have been stung by the Lionfish in their aquariums. They say the sting is like fire. In Negril's waters, the reefs here are so full of fish, but the Lionfish can decimate small fish populations," he added.

Just recently, researchers at the University of North Carolina, announced that Lionfish, which are alien to the Caribbean, were threatening local fish populations and were outeating marine predators such as sharks and barracudas and that "mother nature appears unable to control its impact on local reef fish".

"That leaves human intervention as the most promising solution to the problem of this highly invasive species," the researchers noted.

But fishing authorities in Negril could adopt some of the 'anti-Lionfish' initiatives implemented by its US neighbours and other groups in the Indian and Pacific oceans. Just last July, an article posted in the National Geographic's Explorer's Journal, titled "Top Five Myths about Lionfish" noted that while the creatures were "excellent invaders", persons in these regions had developed "ingenious solutions, including dive operations, to remove Lionfish regularly" and that "you'll be hard-pressed to find Lionfish on most of the popular dive sites".

The article noted that Lionfish derbies, or fishing competitions that award prizes for the largest, smallest, and most Lionfish captured, are becoming more popular and are an excellent way to clean the reef and spread awareness. It noted that between 2009 and 2012, derbies run by the Reef Environmental Education Foundation removed 10,231 Lionfish.

In 2011, the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries Lionfish Subcommittee, which included NEPA, the University of the West Indies (UWI), the Jamaica Tourist Board, among other interests, launched a programme to rid Jamaican waters of Lionfish under the theme "Eat a Lionfish and Save at Least 20 Juvenile Fish a Day".

However, a document on the Lionfish, prepared by the UWI in 2011, also noted that the creatures reproduce all year round in the Caribbean and that a female Lionfish is capable of producing two million eggs each year. It noted that the creatures, "for many reasons, were released into the canals and seas and 'set free' after they grew too large for aquariums owned by aquaria enthusiasts, mainly in the USA, who had imported them for their homes and offices. Since then, they have made their way along the East Coast of the USA, The Bahamas, Hispaniola, Cuba, Jamaica, and many other countries throughout the Caribbean," the document noted.