On Lionfish Patrol in Grand Cayman
(DiverWire) There’s been plenty written about the hunt for the invasive and destructive lionfish. This week, during a research trip to Grand Cayman, I joined a team from Ocean Frontiers on the East End of the island to participate in a lionfish hunt for myself.
I joined Sean Crothers and Maui Gomez, two Ocean Frontiers’ most successful lionfish hunters, on a sunny afternoon in 83 degree water. The first site, Jack McKinney’s Reef, is a 100-ft wall dive with plenty of ledges and crevices for lionfish to hide. Sure enough, not more than 10 minutes into the dive, Sean had spotted and speared two large ones.
Using a specially-designed tri-tip spear, both Crothers and Gomez showed great skill taking out the aggressive and sometimes illusive prey. What we spotted included both large and small lionfish. It didn’t matter – they all needed to be eliminated. Since lionfish reproduce very quickly, any that aren’t captured and killed will increase the problem in the future.
Crothers said he has watched the lionfish population double in just two years since the first lionfish was spotted on the East End of Grand Cayman in January of 2009. “We didn’t realize the scope of the problem then, but we do now,” he said. Earlier this year, the Cayman Islands government approved spearing by qualified dive professionals. Before that clearance, dive professionals had to rely on nets and other potentially hazardous ways to capture the fish.
After having been stung three times by the lionfish’s venomous spines, Crothers shows extra care when approaching a target. “It hurts. But if you’re careful, you won’t get stung,” he says. Dive pros don’t always wear protective gloves, but they do carry and extra thick capture bag that often fills up very quickly.
Ocean Frontiers has started a weekly lionfish dive where the sole purpose is to spot, spear and collect as many as possible. This week, the total was a couple dozen, which still isn’t close to the record of 63 set by three dive teams earlier this year.
Once the lionfish are speared, Crothers demonstrated how he cuts off the head and feeds the rest of the fish to eager groupers and yellowtails that follow him looking for a free meal. “We’re trying to create an appetite for lionfish among the other fish in the local waters.”
Today, we had an added guest – a single Caribbean Reef Shark approached our group of divers, but didn’t come close enough for a free meal.
Gomez said the lionfish dives presented by Ocean Frontiers are becoming very popular. He said divers are eager to get involved, but he was quick caution world-be lionfish hunters. “Make sure you take the class and receive proper training,” he advises, adding, “and watch your air. When you’re hunting, it’s easy to get caught up in it and lose track of your air.”
This was my first lionfish “hunt”, but it’s certainly not going to be my last. The lionfish invasion is taking place all over the Caribbean, Florida and even up the Atlantic coastline. There are many “theories” about how it started and no one is absolutely sure. The only certainty is that the lionfish need to be stopped.
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