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The Hunt is on

The Hunt is on
Virgin Islands divers take aim on lionfish

Soon after the invasive lionfish first breeched Virgin Islands waters and made itself known to this delicate aquatic ecosystem, officials began to take count. In June, BVI marine biologist Shannon Gore announced that the first lionfish had been captured in BVI waters, off the coast of Anegada. A week later, she announced another catch. Then reports mounted rapidly, and the individual announcements stopped. At the time, dive professionals were asked to mark the locations where the predator fish were spotted and wait for authorities to come back and bag them for documentation and eventual disposal.

   

Today, officials don’t count. The problem has escalated beyond monitoring and documenting—it calls for more aggressive tactics. Since the turn of 2011, dive operators and some fishermen have been given free rein to hunt the fish with spear guns, a tactic previously limited—by law—to a few licensed local fishermen.
    
The insidious predator, which is native to the tropical Pacific and Indian Oceans, is suspected to have been introduced to Florida waters when specimens escaped from an aquarium there in the early 1990s. Since then, the fish have reproduced in numbers and moved south and along the United States’ coastline in exponential numbers. Reports in the Bahamas and in the Cayman Islands suggest that the problem there has gotten out of hand, their native ecosystems left to suffer irreparable damage.
    
However, for Caribbean communities, many whose livelihoods depend on a bountiful underwater tourism product, the battle to regain control of the native reef ecosystems has not gone without a fight. In January 2010, Cayman Islands authorities authorized dive operators to hunt and teach other qualified divers to eradicate the lionfish from the waters, a call that found more than 300 participants who tallied up more than 1,000 kills in the first few months.  In the US Virgin Islands, where lionfish were first sighted off the coast of St Croix in March 2009, a similar fight has been taking place.  
    
Over the past year and a half, The CORE Foundation, a non-profit group operating out of St Croix, has been actively hunting lionfish, while recruiting and teaching new underwater mercenaries techniques to hunt the one- to seventeen-inch long fish. In the time they’ve been active, CORE President Joe Gulli said the group has trained more than 120 divers who have nabbed some 800 Lionfish.
    
Here, the battle is just beginning. Shannon Gore, working through the Department of Conservation and Fisheries, has met individually with dive operators, supplying them with “letters of exemption” which allow them to hunt lionfish outside of national park boundaries without fear of judicial reprisal.
    
“It’s the quickest and most effective way to get rid of them,” Gore said. “[But] it’s not to say any charter boat or anyone coming into the territory can just go out there and start spearing—we’re strictly leaving the job to dive operators and certain fishermen.”
    
The marine biologist acknowledged that the task ahead would be a vexing one.
    
“It’s gotten way out of control,” she said. “We knew [the infestation] was going to happen after Cayman and the Bahamas, and we have a very large territory; we can’t just have a thousand people out there every day sweeping the place. That’s why we’re doing the best we can with the resources we have.”
    
When asked in March how many lionfish had been nabbed, Gore said the number reached “a few dozen.”
    
Mike Royle, owner of the BVI SCUBA company Blue Water Divers, said in a March interview, “We’ve caught a few, but we’re seeing a little bit more and more of them all the time.”
    
For the dive shop owner, the task of eliminating all of the uninvited migrant fish from the BVI’s expansive waters seems almost impossible.
    
“We’ll never stop it,” he said. “If we’re getting together and going at the problem as some sort of dive army around the Caribbean—I just don’t think we’ll ever be able to realistically stop this problem.”
However, Joe Gulli of CORE said that examples of the USVI’s progress in their waters might help to illustrate how a collective force can thwart the potential devastating effect that these predator fish can have on the native fish population around our reefs.
    
“I think we’ve been very successful at the level we’re running at,” Gulli said. “The CORE Foundation has pulled more than 800 fish out of the water; what’s that tell you?”
    
The areas the lionfish fighters have targeted are showing visible results, he said.
    
“I believe [the problem] is completely containable,” he said. “We just need the manpower to meet the needs.”
    
Since March, Gulli and other CORE members have been visiting various BVI dive establishments to teach operators about useful spearing techniques, and to educate the public about what they see as a “containable” problem at hand.
    
For more information about how you might help the fight, contact Joe Gulli at [email protected].

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