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Reef Check

What To Do if You Spot a Lionfish  –  Non-native, Indo-Pacific lionfish have invaded the BVI. These voracious, venomous hunters do not have any natural predators in the BVI, and they’re known as a destructive force on other Caribbean islands and in Florida where they were accidentally introduced after an aquarium in Biscayne Bay broke during Hurricane Andrew.

Luckily, the BVI was prepared for the invasion. Marine biologist Shannon Gore from the Conservation and Fisheries Department (CFD) applied for support from the UK in November, knowing that the predator’s arrival in the BVI was imminent. The grant money came through in March, about one week after the first lionfish was spotted in the BVI. At this time, the grant money is mainly being used to raise awareness and buy the equipment needed to successfully capture the fish. Shannon’s hope is that everyone in the BVI knows what a lionfish looks like and knows what to do if they spot one.

  If you see one of these, mark the spot.

On the popular cruising bulletin board traveltalkonline.com, members recently debated how to respond to the BVI lionfish infestation—some encouraged netting, others killing and cooking them, but no one seemed to know the official word from the BVI government concerning this creature. Cruisers want to protect the BVI waters they love so much, so they are happy to help wipe out the lionfish, but they also respect BVI laws and are very aware of the fishing restrictions in the BVI.

Shannon is following the lead of St Croix, an island that has already had several lionfish sightings, and employing an effective underwater marking system for when snorkelers, swimmers or divers spot a lionfish. The markers are made from a ¾” washer, about four feet of survey tape and a wine cork. Shannon’s goal is for every Buoyancy Control Device (BCD) and snorkelling lifejacket to have one of the lionfish markers along with a plastic card with pictures of the lionfish on it.

If divers spot a lionfish in BVI waters, they first need to “stop and relax,” Shannon said. “Don’t scare the fish. It’s not going to attack you. If you scare the fish, we’ll never find it.” Divers should not try to kill or capture the fish, either. “If an untrained person tries to catch it and doesn’t mark it then loses it…think of how many more that one fish can produce,” she said. Rather, divers should place one of the markers on a spot on the sea floor or reef as close to the lionfish as possible. The washer keeps the marker in its spot while the cork extends the survey tape so that it acts like an underwater flag. After the marker has been placed, the divers should notify the CFD or a local dive operator with the location of the site where the lionfish was spotted. “One of the dive operators or our department will respond within 24 hours,” Shannon said, adding that St Croix has had a 100% success rate with the markers. “Every place where a marker has been put down, they’ve caught one” The lionfish tend to be slow moving and linger in one area. In one instance, divers in St Croix went out four days after the marker was set and still recovered the fish.

Lionfish markers in use. Photo courtesy of USVI Lionfish Response Program.

Some divers and snorkelers have expressed concern about the fish’s venomous spikes. Shannon again mentioned the slowness of the creature but provided instructions on what someone should do if punctured. “Heat,” she said. “Scalding water breaks down the protein.”

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While Shannon discourages the capturing of lionfish, I asked her what to do if someone accidentally caught one. “They should probably kill it,” she said. “Then call us and let us know where they picked it up” 

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