Lionfish are predatory and pose a real threat to the health of local coral reefs, according to many experts.
Local SNUBA owner Frank Cummings with a lionfish on spear in St. John waters.
Frank Cummings, who has operated SNUBA underwater tours in waters around St. John for years, is fighting for his livelihood and the V.I. environment, ecology and economy – and killing some of the fanciest fish on local reefs as fast as he can.
Cummings doesn’t like to admit it, but in the past year he estimates he has killed almost 300 of the showy lionfish which are popular with home aquarists but in the wild have expanded their range into the Caribbean and are taking over the reef habitat.
“I don’t like to kill things,” Cummings said. “I see this as a threat to my livelihood and the reefs.”
In local waters the threat primarily comes from Pterois volitans, or red lionfish, a non-native species from Indo-Pacific waters which were introduced into Atlantic and Caribbean waters around Florida sometime around 1985 and have spread north and south, first being documented in local waters in November 2008.
Voracious Predator on Juvenile Reef Fish
Voracious feeders on juvenile algae-eating reef fish, the lionfish has been identified as “one of top 15 species that will affect global diversity,” according to the Snuba business owner.
“They eat the algae eaters, the grazers,” Cummings explained to a heavily-attended meeting of the St. John Audubon Society on February 19, illustrating his presentation with a photograph of more than 20 juvenile grunts taken from the stomach of one 12-inch long feeding lionfish. “The algae goes out of control, killing the coral.”
Most ominous, one lionfish can lay 30,000 eggs every four days and up to 2 million eggs per year, he added.
“We don’t know what’s going on with the eggs,” Cummings admitted.
“As a monetary thing, it will affect us all,” Cumming warned ominously. “This will cause divers to choose other Caribbean locations. If you have a business this will affect you,”
“Our local commercial fishermen will have no fish to catch in time,” he added.
Lionfish Have No Local Predators
The biggest problem appears to be that local predator fish such as sharks and moray eels do not yet recognize the lionfish as a food source, Cummings said, although there are reports that grouper are eating them in Bahamas.
“Our (predator) fish don’t recognize them.” he said. “Here they are just a bully on the playground. Our fish aren’t ready for this.”
In a politically correct move, local Caribbean Oceanic Restoration and Education (CORE) participants have discontinued an early practice of feeding dead lionfish to predators to help them develop a taste for the invader because you can’t “feed” fish in federal park waters, Cummings told his audience.
“We no longer feed the lionfish to other fish,” Cummings asserted. “We leave them for the reef to reabsorb.”
CORE Coordinates Response
While environmentalists and scientist study the phenomenon which is threatening the entire Caribbean, Cummings and others in the USVI marine industry have joined with CORE which is specifically addressing a response to the local lionfish invasion – and including marine industry members and the public in efforts to control the proliferation of lionfish in local waters.
“Every day people see this as a threat to the reef and they respond to it,” Cummings said of the local program which distributes “lionfish markers” and information cards to divers and snorkelers to use to mark a sighting before they call or e-mail the sighing to a hot line which coordinates a response by divers.
“Try and triangulate the location,” he reminded his audience. “The better information you give us, the better chance we have of finding it.”
“We share information,” Cummings said of the Caribbean Lionfish Response Program and CORE.
“Someone spots a fish and we get a call and someone gets that fish,” Cummings said succinctly of the program which covers all three U.S. Virgin Islands. “In the last year and a half, I’ve killed 200 to 300 lion fish myself.”
Local waters are “going through a wave right now of 2-to-4 inch-long” lionfish, he added.
Although Cummings said the group is “getting a lot of calls from Maho in the shallows,” the invasion is more noticeable on reefs at greater depths can be found at depths as great as 105 feet.
“We know what habitat they like – they like ledges, just like lobsters,” Cummings told the Audubon Society meeting. “You’re not going to see them in the shallows, not until you get down to 40 or 50 feet,”
“Then you’ll see lionfish, lionfish, lionfish,” he added.
“The lion fish find areas they like and they congregate there,” said Cummings displaying a map of the waters around St. John showing “hot spots” and ticking off including:
• “20 fish taken out off Tektite”
• “100 fish off Reef Bay”
• “60 feet deep off Caneel we’ve taken out 100s”
• “lots of baby (lion)fish in Leinster”
• “about 75 in Hurricane Hole” hiding in the mangrove roots “you can’t get at them, that’s where they go.”
“I think they move if they are threatened,” Cummings said. “The fish are not stupid; they move out into deeper water to avoid being harassed.”
“Once you scare them they are 10 times harder to catch,” Cummings added.
Science Supports Culling
“Scientific reports support culling (the lion fish population),” Cummings told his Audubon audience. “We’ve singled out areas with heavy populations of lion fish. We know where the fish are. Now it’s just a matter of go get ‘em.”
“If you have a well-organized response, you can mitigate the damage,” Cummings added.
“We’ve systematically repeated dives in these areas to keep the populations low,” Cummings explained. “Lionfish populations have decreased or been kept at bay significantly in areas of attention.”
“We’re not paying a bounty,” Cummings added. “Although I would like to see that.”
Lionfish hunters don’t use spear guns, relying instead on special points on “Hawaiian slings,” hand-held spears propelled by a heavy rubber band.
“This is really only good for lionfish,” Cummings said as he demonstrated the use of a sling.
The Caribbean Lionfish Response Program, a 501-3(c) organization, is supported by the Friends of the V.I. National Park and cooperates with the National Park Service.
The organization offers a seven-step diver training program for participants in the lionfish program which includes: search and removal dives, response dives, educational information, visitor lionfish identification, charter boat program and the distribution of lionfish display cards to all snorkel companies.
Cummings can be reached at Snuba of St. John at 693-8063 and the Caribbean Lionfish Response Program and CORE can be contacted through email@example.com.