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Government must take ownership of lionfish problem

| 24/07/2014 | 0 Comments

(CNS Business): As the Cayman government contemplates spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a cruise port dock and renovations to the three airports, the lionfish problem, which has the potential to devastate the marine life of the islands, thereby destroying what brings tourists here in the first place is being largely ignored. Neil van Niekerk, Manager of the Southern Cross Club on Little Cayman and President of the Sister Islands Tourism Association, says the lionfish problem is a pest problem and should be dealt with by government the same way that mosquitoes were dealt with in the 1960s.

Lionfish

Lionfish on Turtle Reef, photo by Alex Henderson

As a tourism destination our primary product, especially in Little Cayman, is diving, and the lionfish threatens the tourism product. He said, “They consume over 53 species in Little Cayman. They have the ability to reproduce up to 42,000 eggs every 2.42 days. Around 41% of all the lionfish on the reef are spawning today. That’s a pretty scary concept to understand.”

One of the biggest problems is that there is no ownership taken by the government, van Niekerk told CNS Business, even though it threatens the greatest resource that the Cayman Islands has. A reduction in the biodiversity and the biomass, which is what the lionfish are doing, is not only threatening the environment, it is threatening the tourism product.

“When you look back in history and look at when the mosquito research unit was formed, it was formed specifically for the purpose of removing pests, and the reason we needed to remove the pests was because of the tourism. This issue is identical in nature,” van Niekerk said. “This is a pest control issue.”

He said the lionfish problem is not ever going to go away and will always threaten the Caribbean but it can be managed, something that was proved in Little Cayman by the Central Caribbean Marine Institute in conjunction with the University of Florida. They proved a dedicated team could manage the lionfish population in a localized area. It can be maintained by a relatively small team on a relatively small budget.

“We have met with the premier and the deputy premier on more than one occasion to discuss lionfish and the issues that surround the lionfish problem. Managing the lionfish problem right now has fallen on the shoulders of the dive operators and the resorts on Little Cayman,” he said. But not only do they have to supply boats and equipment but also dive staff who are then required to work over and above their work times where they are not getting paid.

“If anyone gets injured, it’s on their back. No one is paying for the medical bills,” van Niekerk said and noted that while a healthy population of sharks and other marine predators around Little Cayman are a big draw for divers, this adds to the issue.

“When you remove lionfish, you are in fact spearing them. Spearing fish under water does attract predators like sharks and so for the people who are culling the lionfish, this does present some risk.”

He asked, “Is it really up to the individual or the business owner or the work permit holder to take that risk on their shoulder? And if something does actually happen, what is the fallout going to be?”

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Category: Stay-over tourism, Tourism, Video

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