Among our current marine environment woes is the arrival of the lionfish, a voracious predator that significantly affects reef populations wherever it decides to reside. Local fishermen have confirmed that it is here, and everyone is wondering exactly what to do about it.
The appearance of the fish is scary, primarily because it eats pretty much anything it wants to on the reefs, in great quantities. And it breeds quickly and efficiently, with each female capable of releasing an egg sac with 10,000 larvae on almost a monthly basis. Studies show that lionfish could be decreasing Atlantic reef diversity by up to 80 per cent.
This week, the Environmental Awareness Group invited a marine specialist from Dominica to conduct a brief education campaign, so that residents and fishermen could learn more about this unique fish and how it can be controlled and turned into an edible delight. This is a step in the right direction.
But in the face of such a voracious, dominating force of nature, much more needs to be done. For a good example of how one Caribbean nation is attacking the problem, we need to look to the south, and specifically Bonaire.
Before the lionfish even appeared in its waters, the island’s nature foundations and tourism organisation got together and formed a battle plan to manage the invasion. They decided that a well-informed community and proactive divers would be the perfect solution.
The Bonaire National Marine Park (yes, islands actually do create protected marine environments) and the Dutch Caribbean Nature Alliance held over 40 lionfish workshops for marine park volunteers and visitors, as well as sessions for dive operators on how to catch and remove the fish.
According to a recent release from Tourism Corporation Bonaire, they have over 300 official lionfish hunters, with a core group of 30 hunters who are removing hundreds of fish every week. This response is generated on an island with only 16,000 people, less than 20 per cent of our total population.
These hunters not only help eradicate the scourge, but also report in to help the government track exactly where the fish are showing up. In fact, they have put technology to use, using a Smartphone app to report sightings in order to create an up-to-the-minute, live map that anyone can access to see where the nasty critters are at any time.
In addition, dive operators have signed on to the programme big time, hosting lionfish cooking and tasting events, special dives where visitors can kill the fish, and fast-track dive certifications for those wanting to join the effort while on vacation.
Here in Antigua & Barbuda, we moan and groan about the appearance of the fish – but action goes little beyond this. The EAG meeting last night was one of the only significant efforts to respond to the lionfish arrival.
But really, what can we expect from a country where precious marine resources are allowed to be wiped out by the insidious force of inaction? We don’t need the lionfish to create havoc in our reefs – we’ve already done it by having no effective legislation or management practices to head off the damages being done by overfishing, the use of gill nets and the lack of protected seasons.
One of the suggested control methods for the lionfish is to encourage the growth of predator populations, like grouper and sharks. The theory is that if you have an off-season where the grouper is allowed to breed and increase in numbers, this would produce more predators. We can’t even establish an off-season for our highly valued spiny lobster, so what chance do you think we would have to do this for other marine life?
Groups like the EAG and environmentalists have been trying for years to establish mechanisms to protect our marine environment – especially since it is not only critical for our food supply but also forms the basis for successful tourism. They are voices in the wilderness, ignored by our government and too badly in need of funds to create any meaningful programmes.
Just imagine life in Antigua & Barbuda 40 or 50 years from now, when our beaches are nothing but rocky outcrops and the lifeblood of tourism has all but dried up – not to mention a world without delectable grilled lobster or other fruits of the sea.
Then maybe you’ll get an idea of why 2,200 people signed the Antigua Conservation Society’s petition calling for government action on our moribund fisheries legislation. Taking six years to ‘study’ legislation before signing it only further guarantees this grim view of the future.
As Bonaire shows us, action trumps inaction in these critical times.