Fishermen encouraged to catch Lionfish for commercial and conservation purposes

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Fishermen in Antigua and Barbuda are being encouraged to take heed of the economic and environmental benefits of catching the invasive lionfish, because although the invasive species has sharp spines with toxins that cause severe pain to divers who have been stung, it has piqued the interest of many for its great taste and many uses.

Fishermen usually discard lionfish when caught to avoid being stung, but Acting Chief Fisheries Officer Ian Horsford said there is a growing market for this type of fish.

“There are a number of restaurants that actually [serve] lionfish – Ojays in the past. I think they have La Bussola up east; they also sell lionfish. There are a number of other restaurants that are also putting it on their menu. So there is a value to it and it’s a resource that we can actually exploit that also has a positive impact on the environment,” Horsford said.

Horsford made this statement in a discussion that took place in the Fisheries Complex at the Point Wharf where a team of specialists from the United States embarked on the mission to address the aggressive lionfish here in Antigua and Barbuda with the help of stakeholders in the fishing industry.

The team of experts include Stacy Frank, the overall project coordinator; Martha Watkins-Gilkes, Antigua Project Coordinator; Dr. Steve Gittings, Chief Scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) office of National Marine Sanctuaries; Mehgan Heaney-Grier, Project Educator and Spokesperson; Alexander Fogg, Marine Resource Coordinator for Okaloosa County, Florida; and Jim Hart, Project Documentarian.

The group’s project aims at helping Antigua and Barbuda protect coral reef ecosystems and create economic opportunities by developing a comprehensive approach to minimize the effects of invasive lionfish.

It was stated that the lionfish is considered “invasive” because research shows they eat over 100 fish and invertebrate species, including juveniles of commercially important species. As such, the general consensus between stakeholders and specialists is that strategies need to be put in place to tackle the problem.

One stakeholder remarked that he has spoken to fishermen divers before and “one of the issues with lionfish is if they go down, there is no guarantee of them finding enough to make it the target of their hunt and the offshoot of the possibility of envenomation affecting them.”

The team made the stakeholders aware of tools such as gloves which prevent persons from being stung by the spine of the fish. President of Lionfish University, Stacy Frank, said the fast-growing fish is safe to eat despite having a poisonous spine, and is a very tasty catch.

Frank also stated that the fish can be used for making jewelry and displayed some jewelry made from lionfish.

Furthermore, the most common solution to mitigating the prevalence of the lionfish that was mentioned in the meeting involved incentivizing the catching of lionfish.

Chief Scientist from NOAA’s office of National Marine Sanctuaries, Dr. Steve Gittings said that “in little Cayman they are [bounties for] iguanas and now they are dropping like flies” and added that creating fishing derbies that only give you credit for lionfish may tip the scale towards lionfish and away from other species.

Gittings also showed the stakeholders a small replica of a fishing net that he has been designing for the sole purpose of catching lionfish and said that the design can be made available.

The group of lionfish experts  hopes to meet with community members, government officials, fishing, wholesale and retail operators, dive operators, non-profit organizations, and perhaps educators to continue the process and will also evaluate the potential for the new trap technologies to be used by the fishing community to begin to remove lionfish from deep-water habitats around the island. 

For each cross-section, they will discuss ways to implement the various elements of the program.  This is likely to include exploring ways to overcome regulatory hurdles to facilitate lionfish removal, finding interested participants in the fishing, diving, and conservation communities, and identifying outlets for lionfish in the seafood market. 

The findings of the team during this visit would guide the development of a response plan for lionfish control in Antigua.

If successful, the sister island would be the first place in the Caribbean to actively reduce deep-water lionfish populations.

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