Mission to address the invasive lionfish species

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A team of experts is coming to Antigua and Barbuda next month on a fact-finding mission to determine the extent to which the lionfish has impacted marine life here, and to develop a control plan to curtail the increase in the population of the invasive species.
The mission is from April 8th to 12th and experts include Stacy Frank, the overall project coordinator; Martha Watkins-Gilkes, Antigua Project Coordinator; Dr. Steve Gittings, Chief Scientist for NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries for over 21 years; Mehgan Heaney-Grier, Project Educator and Spokesperson; Alexander Fogg, Marine Resource Coordinator for Okaloosa County, Florida; and Jim Hart, Project Documentarian.
According to Dr. Gittings, the purpose of the project is to help Antigua and Barbuda protect coral reef ecosystems and create economic opportunities by developing a comprehensive approach to minimise the effects of invasive lionfish.  Depending on the nature and extent of the problem, the approach could involve removal of both shallow and deep-water lionfish, as well as commercialisation, which will incentivise public participation.
He noted, “During the initial visit, the planning team will meet with various stakeholders who could be involved in the program and evaluate the status of the lionfish problem around the island.  The team would 1) assess public perception and interest in participation in numerous potential control efforts, 2) determine the status of regulatory barriers to any control activities, and 3) examine invaded habitat types and conduct an informal census of lionfish and native species.”
There’s no question as to whether lionfish have invaded waters in Antigua and Barbuda as they have been seen and efforts started some years ago to stop their proliferation.
To ensure all stakeholders are privy to the same information and the plan, the team will be meeting with community members, government officials, fishing, wholesale and retail operators, dive operators, non-profit organisations and, perhaps, educators.
“For each group, we 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,” Dr. Gittings explained.
He also said the team will evaluate the potential for new trap technologies to be used by the fishing community to begin to remove lionfish from deep-water habitats around the island.
“If successful, this would be the first place in the Caribbean to actively reduce deep-water lionfish populations, which is a critical step to overall population control and comprehensive protection,” the expert, who has invented a deep-water trap designed to catch lionfish in waters beyond scuba depth, elaborated.
The findings of the team during this visit would guide the development of a response plan for lionfish control in Antigua.
Fisherfolk in Antigua and Barbuda have organised periodic lionfish hunts and similar initiatives have been pursued in other countries, but the lionfish has not yet been controlled in many of these areas where there’s deep water.
“We are developing traps that we hope will be tried by fishermen who are seeking new sources of income.  If this works out, the fishing community will be doing conservation work at the same time, Dr. Gittings said.
He boasts that the traps minimise by-catch, prevent ghost-fishing, and could create new opportunities for fishermen to help create a steady supply of lionfish to seafood and other developing markets.
The lionfish is native to the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean, where there are 12 species in the genus Pterois. They are considered “invasive” because research shows they eat over 100 fish and invertebrate species, including juveniles of commercially important species, and have sharp spines with toxins that cause severe pain in divers who have been stung.

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