The predatory lionfish species could wipe out vast populations of reef fish across the Caribbean.
With the entire Virgin Islands marine eco-system under attack by a single species of fish, local scientists, scuba divers, dive operators and volunteers are waging a coordinated effort to fight back.
Researchers believe lionfish were first introduced to the Atlantic Ocean somewhere in Florida in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
While scientists believe the introduction was somewhat benign such as a pet owner dumping his tank in the sea after losing power, that single act has reverberated throughout the entire Caribbean.
“The big fear is that the reef fishery is going to be decimated by this species,” said Thomas Kelley, V.I. National Park resource manager. “We know this because they’ve been in the Bahamas for several years and a variety of research has been done to bore this out.”
Lionfish have no natural predators and feed on juvenile reef fish, which are integral to the health of coral reefs, Kelley explained.
“This may lead to the serious impairment of the coral reef system and as a reminder, the coral reef system is under attack by a couple of dozen significant threats, many of which are increasing each year,” said Kelley. “The threats are everything from climate change to disease to human impact, sedimentation, nutrient loading and loss of habitat. Considering all this, it’s amazing that we even have what we do have.”
While coral reefs have been struggling to survive, the lionfish threat could be devastating, explained Joe Gulli, a veteran scuba diver from St. Croix.
“Life as we know it in the U.S. Virgin Islands is going to change if we don’t do something about lionfish,” said Gulli. “Dive shops, the hotel industry, restaurants, tourists, everything will be affected if we lose our marine ecosystem. Lionfish can decimate the juvenile fish population by 80 percent in just five weeks.”
Moved to action after attending a lionfish workshop on St. Croix, Gulli volunteered his time and founded the Caribbean Lionfish Response Program. Now he is reaching out to residents on St. John, St. Thomas, Puerto Rico and the British Virgin Islands to help fight the spread of lionfish.
“What we’re doing is bringing the USVI, Puerto Rico and the BVI’s together in one joint effort against the lionfish,” Gulli said. “With the Caribbean Lionfish Response Program we have dive shops and operators who donate boats once a month and give divers discounts who are out searching for these fish.”
“We have been checking the shelf around St. Croix in a systematic manner and we need to start doing this throughout the Caribbean,” Gulli said.
Gulli will be on St. John this week and is hosting two meetings on Wednesday, April 14, for dive operators and dive staff. The meetings will be at the Cruz Bay legislature building from 1 to 4 p.m. and from 6 to 8 p.m.
Gulli will host a general meeting for the public to get involved on May 12 on St. John, but wants to get the dive operators on board first, he explained.
“What we’re going to do is try to get St. Thomas and St. John up to speed with what we’ve been doing on St. Croix,” said Gulli. “We’ve been at this for seven months on St. Croix and we really want to get this going over there.”
The lionfish response centers around a simple marker which divers or snorkelers place when they see the species. Seen as the best defence against lionfish, the markers are simply made of a three-quarter-inch washer tied by a piece of flagging tape to a wine cork.
Since lionfish don’t move around much, the simple marking technique has proven surprisingly effective.
“This is a really effective method and it works,” said Gulli. “If you are in the water, you should have a marker with you. We need everyone — casual snorkelers, divers, everyone — on board to help with this effort.”
“It is known that a fish commonly will be in an area for a couple of weeks and that’s why the marking system works well,” said Kelley. “It’s a very inexpensive marker and will stay stationary for a few days until an experienced person can go to the area and capture the animal.”
While there have only been two confirmed captures of lionfish off St. John shores, the species is out there, Kelley explained.
“The fact is that approximately 10 or 12 individuals have been found in places ranging from the deep waters off the western portion of St. Thomas to the northeast part of St. John, and the south shore of St. John and the BVI’s and off Lovango Cay,” said Kelley. “Clearly with those few individuals spread in such a large area, there are additional fish out there for sure.”
While eradicating the species would be the best response, lionfish are toxic and untrained swimmers are urged to just mark the location of the fish and report it, according to Kelley.
“Eradication, or the removal of every animal from the area and monitoring the area to ensure that no new animals enter the area is not feasible,” said Kelley. “The spines have a neurotoxin which means a person must have special training and then exercise caution when capturing the fish That is again why the marking system works really well.”
In the face of such a potentially devastating threat to local resources, it’s important for the entire Caribbean to work in unison, according to Gulli.
“This is our only hope really,” said Gulli. “But this works. If I didn’t think there was hope, I wouldn’t be doing this.”
As the group distributes lionfish markers, the public should note any sightings of the fish and report it to V.I. National Park resource officials at 693-8950 ext. 224 or ext. 225. The Caribbean Lionfish Response Program is in the process of creating a website with full information about the species, which should be up and running soon.