Frank Cummings Leads Local War on Lionfish

Photos courtesy of Chris Dunlap, teacher at Gifft Hill School. [hr gap=”1″]

Legend has it that in 2011, George Kramer and Ernest Matthias were diving off the Northshore of St. John when they spotted a lionfish. Although there had been many sightings of this poisonous invasive species on St. Croix since 2009, this was the first one seen on St. John, and it necessitated a declaration of war.

Fortunately, an organization was already in place to fight this dangerous predator which could do incalculable damage to our local reef fish. The Caribbean Oceanic Restoration and Education Foundation, otherwise known as CORE, called divers to arms, and after five years of systematic search and destroy missions, the population of lionfish around St. John has been significantly diminished.

Much of this is due to the dedicated efforts of Frank Cummings, now CORE’s outreach director for all three islands.

“He deserves a medal for what he’s done to the lionfish,” said Nelson Uzzell, a diver who often accompanies Cummings on lionfish hunts. “He’s done a really good job of training others to catch them. Because of him, a lot of the lionfish have disappeared.”

The goal is to destroy as many lionfish as possible before they do more damage to our reef fish populations. Lionfish are carnivorous fish which eat more than 70 species of fish and invertebrates, according to Lionfish Quickfacts. “On heavily invaded sites, lionfish have reduced their fish prey populations by up to 90% and continue to consume native fishes at unsustainable rates,” the site states.

Lionfish caught on spear.
Lionfish caught on spear.

Last year between September 15 and October 15, volunteers caught more than one hundred lionfish at Rendezvous Bay on St. John’s south shore. Cummings believes that their fertilized eggs, which float to the ocean’s surface and collect in jelly-like masses of up to 15,000 eggs, were swept into the bay by mats of Sargassum weed that also drifted through the Caribbean in unusual amounts in 2015.

A single female lionfish can spawn up to 2 million eggs per year, according the Reef Environmental Education Foundation, and can live at depths of 1000 feet, much deeper than divers can safely reach to hunt them. (There is hope that a newly developed robot may be able to go deep to zap them. Click this link for further information: Robotic lionfish zapper.)

In addition to leading weekly lionfish hunting safaris, Cummings regularly trains snorkelers and certified scuba divers to kill lionfish. “We have certification courses which allow people to carry a pole spear within Virgin Islands National Park waters, where spearfishing is prohibited,” said Cummings. Lionfish Response Diver certification must be renewed every three years, he said.

Cummings collaborated with Barb Crites, who works with CORE on education and outreach on St. John, to divide up the perimeter of St. John and find volunteers to patrol the waters within their specified beats. Nearly 100 volunteers on St. John have signed up, and their cumulative efforts are having an effect.

“When we first started going out, we’d see ten or fifteen fish in one area, now we see four of five, said Uzzell. “We keep going out and finding new ones breeding in deeper water. But there are fewer in shore.”

“St. John is not a healthy place to be if you’re a lionfish,” said Cummings, who keeps detailed records and tries to patrol the lionfish hotspots every six months– or until he sees the effects of his team’s efforts. But he admits that the battle is ongoing.

Frank Cummings, U.S. Virgin Islands CORE Outreach Coordinator

Cummings first became involved with CORE when he spotted a lionfish off the rocks between Trunk Bay and Jumbie Bay where he usually leads visitors on SNUBA Excursions. He knew that the local fish were not used to seeing lionfish and would be especially vulnerable to predation.

A lionfish will typically hover in one spot waving its striped fins and spines to attract prey, then suddenly open its gaping mouth and swallow the unsuspecting fish. Cummings has read reports that lionfish have also been known to hunt in packs and will surround a group of fish and suck them in.

There is a native species commonly known as a “scorpion fish” or “lionfish” which has poisonous spines, but it should not be confused with the ones now causing all the trouble. The two types of invasive lionfish that first appeared in numbers in the Bahamas around 2007 are both Indo-Pacific species (Pterois volitans and Pterois miles).

Divers and biologists were mystified by their origin until DNA testing pretty much pinned down the source of the invasion, according to Cummings. Because of their dazzling beauty, lionfish became popular aquarium fish. Almost all the wild lionfish now found in the Caribbean can be traced back to four mating pairs from a Florida pet shop that washed out to sea in a storm, he said.

Lionfish do have many natural predators in their native habitat. Sharks, groupers, snappers, moray eels, and barracuda will all eat lionfish in the Indo-Pacific region.

But the situation here is different for two reasons. First, our local fish were not accustomed to encountering Indo-Pacific lionfish and didn’t recognize them as food.

Secondly, the snapper and grouper populations in the Virgin Islands were nearly decimated in the 1980’s through the 1990’s when new fishing rules went into effect. Snapper and grouper populations are now rebounding, and Cummings believes they are starting to eat the lionfish.

Divers in the British Virgin Islands were hoping to teach local fish to prey on lionfish. They started feeding lionfish to sharks, but when sharks started mobbing the divers in expectation of an easy meal, the practice was discontinued.

Except for a few divers who hold special licenses, spear fishing is outlawed throughout the BVI, so the lionfish population there continues to thrive. This is especially unlucky for the U.S Virgin Islands which is downwind and downstream from the BVI; lionfish eggs continue to drift our way.

In Florida and elsewhere in the Caribbean, lionfish hunters are hoping to market their catch as a delicacy, and restaurants are hoping that diners will develop a taste for them. “They are good eating,” said Cummings. “Their meat is light, not oily. Kind of like a grouper.”

The problem is that in our part of the Caribbean, fish that prey on other fish tend to accumulate ciguatera toxin, so diners can get pretty sick eating lionfish. There are some St. Thomas restaurants that feature lionfish; Cummings believes these are caught in waters on the Northside of St. Thomas–generally thought to be free of ciguatera.

Cummings does not encourage the casual fisher of lionfish to eat them. Aside from the possibility of getting ciguatera poisoning, there’s always the danger of being pieced by a poisonous spine. Cummings has been stung twice, and he will testify that it hurts. “Anyone who gets stung should go to the clinic, especially if they’re allergic to them,” he said.

Although people might not eat lionfish, he hopes the local groupers and snappers will. If you’re wondering why these predator fish aren’t affected by a lionfish’s spines, Cummings explained that a fish will always eat another fish head first. That way the dorsal fins of the prey (which may contain poisonous spines) are flattened as the fish is swallowed.

Cummings invites everyone who spots and /or kills a lionfish to report it. To view the latest lionfish collection data, please click the following link: To alert CORE responders to a sighting on St. John, please, call (340) 201-2342.

The phone numbers for the response teams on all three islands are listed on the CORE website.

Diver swimming with spear.
Diver swimming with spear.

The number of divers certified by CORE is lower on St. Thomas and St. Croix than on St. John because there are far fewer areas with spear gun restrictions. Kitty Edwards and Jason Quetel are two of the more active CORE Board members on St. Thomas. On St. Croix, Wess Tester serves as dive coordinator and Thomas Johnson heads education and outreach.

Proficient scuba divers may want to join the team on St. John that goes on weekly hunts. Members include Jason Beasley, Alan Platt, Nelson Uzzell, Leslie Charpentier, and Rob Tutton. (Tutton recently moved to St. John to teach courses in freediving, and he’s been coaching the CORE Lionfish Response Divers to improve their technique.)

Those who have a technical bent might want to work with marine biologist Rachel Kohler McKinley who is mapping the data collected by CORE on a Geographic Information System. Charlie Palminteri, a Gifft Hill School sophomore, is assisting with the data input.

The Gifft Hill School has been encouraging its students to become active in lionfish eradication. Teacher Chris Dunlap offers an elective mini-course for students, and although most are too young to be certified to carry a pole spear by CORE (the minimum age is 18), they make excellent spotters.

“We have students who have grown up on St. John and really care about our reefs. They understand the connection between the health of our reefs and our local economy,” said Dunlap. “We hope our program will foster a lifelong love of the reef and desire to protect it.”

“They’re going to be our next generation of hunters,” said Cummings. “We’ll need them until evolution catches up and the predators naturally start eating the lionfish.”