Overfishing and pollution are often cited as primary drivers of reef declines. Climate change is clearly compounding those problems, as ocean temperatures are rising, acidification is underway, and previously rare diseases are increasing in frequency and severity. In the Caribbean, a watershed moment was 1983, when a region-wide die-off of long-spined sea urchins set off an explosion of algae that gradually caused the loss of coral throughout the Western Atlantic. All these changes have left only the least altered coral reefs in the region capable of resisting their reach.
Many believe the spread of lionfish, which accelerated dramatically in 2000, is another milestone in the ongoing decline of reefs in the region. Lionfish are indiscriminate feeders and reproduce prolifically. They consume large numbers of small or juvenile reef fish and small invertebrates. In some locations, they have reduced reef diversity and dramatically decreased the abundance of native species. A major unanswered question is whether this invasion is one of the last straws, potentially dooming any chance for recovery of Atlantic and Caribbean reefs.
Invasive species like lionfish need to be removed to protect native fish and invertebrates.
Lionfish are not only an immediate threat to Atlantic coral reef communities, controlling them is an essential component of any current and future coral reef restoration actions. Controlling lionfish helps protect fish and invertebrate prey that play essential functional roles in healthy coral ecosystems. Some of these species serve as prey for others. Some help balance the food chain by keeping others from becoming overly abundant. Still others work together in multi-species foraging groups, enhancing the success of feeding for all. And many depend on other species for critical services, such as cleaning. No one knows whether the aggressive steps necessary for large scale reef restoration will be palatable to the public or regulators, or whether the measures would be successful if they are implemented. But we know that invasive species impede ecosystem health and must be controlled in order to succeed.
In April 2019 a five person science team from Lionfish University lead by Dr. Steve Gittings, Chief Scientist of Research for NOAA, conducted an Initial Site Visit – spending several days meeting with various stakeholders and evaluating the status of the lionfish problem around the island. The purpose was to 1) examine invaded habitat types and conduct an informal census of native species as well as lionfish, 2) assess public perception and interest levels in participation in numerous potential control efforts, and 3) determine the status or regulatory barriers to any control activities.
The team found an abundance of lionfish at the dive sites outside Nonsuch Bay and suggests that consistent culling or periodic, focused removal efforts may be needed at such remote locations to keep lionfish populations under control and to stop them from further stressing the ecosystems they have invaded. Periodic pulses of population growth of lionfish at remote sites could quickly result in predation rates that overwhelm native fishes, particularly given the current lack of targeted removal by fishermen or dive boat operators. Fishermen currently focus on native species and dive boats don’t visit these more remote and advanced dive sites.
As long as localized abundances of lionfish remain in the region, the potential for future population explosions remain. The high reproductive output of lionfish makes for continuous recruitment potential. The lack of response actions that might control lionfish over large expanses of Antiguan and Barbudan reefs, combined with the lack of targeted fishing, enhances the likelihood of future negative impacts to the ecosystems they have invaded.
Spearfishing is the primary approach used in shallow water (diving depths, generally not exceeding 35m) to capture lionfish in numbers that might support a commercial fishery. Because there are extensive areas around the island that are not regularly visited, it is likely that the abundance of lionfish is high enough to support a fishery.
Numerous economic studies have found that many customers are more than willing to pay higher prices for lionfish, as long as they are made aware of the many benefits of consuming it (low in mercury, high in Omega 3 fatty acids, keeping the reefs healthy, delicious taste).
As a priority for controlling invasive lionfish on Antigua we recommend conducting a derby, in conjunction with a festival, to promote engagement in lionfish removal and to educate the diving and general public about lionfish.
Whether lionfish prove to be a commercially viable fishery, experience has shown that local populations of this exotic species can be kept below levels at which they cause ecological or economic harm. But that requires concerted effort through regular removal via unorganized efforts and during organized events or derbies. This can become quite competitive and rewarding, with individuals vying for public recognition, national records, and prizes. The lionfish can also be sold to local restaurants and markets by fishers after the derby and provide additional incentive for lionfish removal. The lionfish fins can also be used to create beautiful jewelry, novelty items, artwork and other products that add more value to the catch and economic benefits beyond seafood sales. Because of this, the environment benefits and opportunities abound for sources of income.
We recommend that lionfish outreach booths be set up at a festival run concurrently with a lionfish derby to raise awareness through direct public engagement and outreach, and to discuss the benefits and safe hunting and handling of the fish, and how-to cooking demonstrations. Also, local vendors can have booths at the festival to increase visibility and sales.
Derbies should be conducted periodically, particularly when locations of high lionfish abundance or other focus areas for removal are identified. Derbies can be organized by any group, advertised on local radio and television and in print media, and serve as public service opportunities for individuals and groups. They frequently include education and training workshops, dissections and data collection, tastings, and can offer cash or other prizes. Fish that are collected can be sold or donated to worthy causes. If local restaurants can be recruited to buy lionfish on the spot from the derby participants and cook in on site and charge a small amount per sample then the fishers make money as well as the restaurants. Measurements should be made, and standardized data saved for analysis of trends. Fish should be inspected for diseases and abnormalities. Stomachs and other parts can be preserved and sent to scientists conducting biology and food web studies.
Derbies, which are sometimes called tournaments, can be conducted as competitive events. Keys to success, particularly for competitive derbies, include generating money and prizes through sponsorships and identifying buyers for the catch. Derbies typically have multiple prize categories for individuals and teams, such as largest and smallest fish, most and total catch weight. Prizes from sponsors can include money, trips, dive gear, attire, and lionfish hunting and safety gear. Benefits of derbies are that they draw participants from private and commercial ventures and can encourage fishing in widespread locations around the island. Hunters often access relatively remote locations that may have high abundances of lionfish in preparation for the derby. These events can also stimulate lionfish targeting by commercial fishermen who learn where to find fish and become familiar with hunting and handling techniques.