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Lionfish speargun licences limited to 400

| 09/06/2015 | 1 Comment

(CNS Business): Islands in the Caribbean continue to wage war against lionfish epidemic that is plaguing the their ecosystems; efforts also continue in Cayman to cull the threat from our reefs. However, with only 400 spears issued to licensed holders, restaurant owners told CNS Business, that’s not enough. In order to keep up with the demand of lionfish for their customers, owners are urging the Department of Environment to import more. However, DoE Research Officer Bradley Johnson said it’s not that easy.

Johnson is in charge of the lionfish control program and with training and licensing individuals on how to safely cull a lionfish. He said that in Cayman activists and chefs have been working to combat the problem since the first lionfish was spotted off Cayman’s shores in 2009.

“I think that’s one of the more obvious ways to look at it, but I don’t necessarily think if we had another 100 or 200 spears that those cullers would necessarily be able to get as many fish as a restaurant needs,” he explained. Johnson added, “One of the problems with culling lionfish, it takes a lot of effort to get them.The other problem is just because you have a lot of spears doesn’t mean that people will be able to get into the water and get access to the areas that haven’t been culled already.”

When it comes to culling a lionfish from a reef, experts say the safest way to detach the poisonous creatures is by using a spear, and in Cayman not just anyone can have one in their possession. Johnson told CNS Business, “In order to use a spear you have to have a licence for that spear and each spear is licensed to a specific individual who applies for that licence.”

In the Cayman Islands there have been restrictions on any type of spearing device since 1986, when the marine parks were established. Johnson explained that the DoE had to get special permission to even allow these types of spears on the island.

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Culling lionfish on Cayman Islands’ reefs

“Traditionally, it’s been restricted to just Caymanians. When the lionfish invasion started it was very difficult to incorporate a spearing programme initially, and it wasn’t until it got to the stage where there weren’t many other options left to effectively control the lionfish,” he said. “The Marine Conservation Board at the time allowed us to basically use a section in their law to create a special licence to issue to all individuals.”

Other restrictions include being 18-years-old or older, having a clean police record and going through and passing a training programme.

“As a government department, we are issuing a spear and we want to make sure you don’t have any criminal record or any marine conservation offense,” Johnson said.

People with the special culling licence are allowed to legally take lionfish from marine park zones or while snorkeling or diving, which is prohibited for everyone else. And every individual must issue a report to the DoE at the end of each month stating the amount of lionfish they culled in that period. However, as with anything else, Johnson said, risks are involved. If done incorrectly, spearing a lionfish can also damage the coral reefs.

“In terms of the amount of fish we are taking out and the amount of fish we see in the surveys, we are trying to decide whether it’s necessary to import another round of spears,” he explained. “It’s a cautious approach to make sure that what we are doing is in the best interest of the country and the natural resources, and not just giving a spear to whoever wants a spear.”

Recently, Florida banned the importation of live lionfish into the state. Johnson said Cayman implemented the same rule years ago. However, it is legal in both places to import this invasive species when it’s frozen, which has cull groups in Cayman fighting to ban importation and get people to focus on the problem in our own backyard.

“I think we have a fairly significant removal effort. I’m sure everything can always be improved, but not to say we are fine and everyone can relax,” Johnson told CNS Business.

Nonetheless, he stressed that it is still critical, more than ever,  to buy locally.

“If you’re going to serve lionfish, the best thing to do is support the local culling community because the one reason that it’s taken off as well as it has is because the restaurants have bought into it, and they started taking fish from the very start,” Johnson said.

Although, Cayman has been fighting against the invasion for around six years, Johnson said there is still a lot to learn and also new techniques are being developed to better tackle this growing threat.

“We take it year by year and we’ll see what happens next year. Hopefully what we are doing will result in our reefs being sustainable for long term,” he said.

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Category: Culinary Tourism, Featured, Tourism, Video, Watersports

Comments (1)

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  1. Anonymous says:

    I did the course about 3 years ago, for the sole purpose of getting a spear to use to kill lionfish when out free diving for conch and lobster. Johnson waited until the end of the course to tell us that they weren’t giving out any more spears, and there’s still no sign of my culling licence. I’ve probably seen several hundred lionfish since then, but have no means of killing them.

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