Managing the lionfish problem: A community effort

The word “lionfish” has been a part of the vocabulary of Cayman Islands residents since 2008, when the first specimen was spotted off Little Cayman. The lionfish (Pterois volitans/miles), native to the distant waters of the Indo-Pacific, is not a welcome visitor to the Caribbean.  

Lionfish are voracious predators, known to eat almost anything they come across, and lots of it. Because of this, lionfish have the potential to decimate our beloved native fish populations.

The first documented sighting of a lionfish in the western Atlantic occurred off the coast of Florida in 1985, but sightings did not become more common until the early 2000s. Lionfish larvae moved throughout the Caribbean region by passively floating along ocean currents.

Lionfish grow and reproduce quickly, and can live in a wide variety of environments. These advantages, combined with their success at feeding, have created a recipe for disaster in the Caribbean where lionfish populations have exploded to over 1,000 fish per acre in some locations.

The Cayman Islands Department of Environment (DoE) has been quick to respond to the invasion in order to preserve our nation’s native marine biodiversity. The DoE implemented a lionfish control program, which included the creation of a volunteer training and licensing program for culling lionfish.

The DoE’s program has resulted in a huge community-based effort to control populations of invasive lionfish. In Little Cayman, licensed divemasters participate in weekly group culls, which have kept lionfish numbers low at frequently dived sites. Scientists from the Central Caribbean Marine Institute (CCMI) on Little Cayman and the University of Florida (UF) have collaborated to study the effects of this culling effort, and they recently proved that regular culling has had a positive impact on reefs by reducing the average number and size of lionfish at study sites. The CCMI and UF are currently following up the project with a study of how culling may positively impact the abundance and diversity of native fish species, especially those that lionfish prefer to eat.

In Grand Cayman, groups of dedicated individuals head out to cull regularly in their own free time. In addition, local dive operators, restaurants, and the DoE regularly team up to organize lionfish culling tournaments, where teams of licensed divers compete to catch as many lionfish as they can in a given amount of time.

On Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013, CCMI will host its Lionfish Culling Tournament for the second year in a row in Grand Cayman. All licensed cullers are welcome to register by contacting Jade Arch ([email protected]) by Oct. 11. Following the cull, participants, their families, and the public are invited to join CCMI representatives at The Crescent in Camana Bay for the judging and awards ceremony, as well as an educational talk on lionfish and a lionfish dissection demonstration.

A portion of the fish culled will be provided to Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink and will be the star ingredient in a sustainable dish for CCMI’s 9th Annual Festival of Trees fundraiser on Nov. 2.