Taming the Lionfish: Cayman Fights Back Against the Invaders

Organized Island-wide Culls in Marine Parks and Community Involvement Inspire the Fight Against Predatory Species

(May 13, 2013) – “Every shot counts!” was the rallying cry at a recent Foster’s Food Fair Lionfish Tournament as Cayman intensified its fight against the invasive species for a 24-hour period on Earth Day weekend. Forty-eight volunteer divers divided into 8 fired-up teams with names like the Teal Tigers, the Silver Bullets and the Red Sail Boys hit the reefs with Ocean Frontiers, Red Sail Sports and Divetech to see who could remove the most lionfish from Grand Cayman’s Marine Parks. Almost 600 invaders were culled in the competition sponsored by the local grocer and organized by the Cayman Islands Tourism Association (CITA), in partnership with the dive operators and several island restaurants.

Foster’s Food Fair, which has sponsored monthly culls with the dive operators for the past year to the tune of $20,000, sells the lionfish in its seafood department. The restaurants, Tukka, Rum Point Restaurant, Brasserie, Guy Harvey’s, Abacus, Greenhouse Café and Cobalt Coast, cook them in creative dishes added to menus. The culling teams celebrated with cocktails and a plaque for the winners, Ocean Frontiers’ Teal Tigers, who brought in 198 lionfish. They earned bragging rights, and restaurant partner Tukka, the honor of displaying the winner’s plaque in its dining room. “Our staff stays motivated by seeing the difference we are making,” says Ocean Frontiers owner Steve Broadbelt, who regularly shares culling data. “When they see that individual efforts are making a difference, it makes them want to do more.”

Dive leaders understand that strong community-wide support is needed in the fight to protect Cayman’s Marine Parks. They have waged individual battles for years, so they applaud community events like the tournament; they want everyone to feel a common purpose.  A Pacific Ocean native, the Red Lionfish first showed up in Florida waters in 1985, probably with human help. Voracious predators, the lionfish have eaten their way through Caribbean reefs, and with an ability to reproduce year-round and no natural enemies, their numbers have exploded.

In late 2008 a juvenile lionfish was first spotted in Little Cayman.  “Divemasters tried in vain to net the invaders on an ad hoc basis during customer dives, attacking them with everything from snorkels to machetes, but they soon became inundated with the pests, so a new plan was needed,” says Neil van Niekerk, Manager of the Southern Cross Club. The Little Cayman community cull was born and scheduled Wednesday afternoons at dusk, the most active time for Lionfish. The four dive operators on the island rotate a boat, fuel and crew for the weekly culls.

Grand Cayman dive operators saw the invasion coming, and taking lessons from Little Cayman, began their own lionfish culls early. Ocean Frontiers saw culling numbers jump from 100 in 2010 to more than 2000 in 2011. The rapid infestation became a serious threat to fragile reef ecosystems and spurred action. The Cayman Islands government amended conservation laws to allow spears to be used on scuba to remove the fish more effectively. The Department of Environment began to train and license divers to cull, and provide culling equipment.

A coordinated island-wide offensive began in April 2012 with monthly culls manned by licensed volunteer resident divers. These culls are sponsored by Fosters Food Fair, organized by CITA and carried out in rotation by Ocean Frontiers, Red Sail Sports and Divetech. “We get a very good response from local divers,” says Rod McDowall, Red Sail Sports Operations Manager. “Many of them are devoted to the cause and enjoy making a contribution to solving a ‘national’ problem.”

Ocean Frontiers cullers have taken 1,616 Lionfish from the reefs so far this year. “At the current pace, we will cull approximately 4000 Lionfish in 2013,” says Steve Broadbelt, adding encouraging news. “We are hearing anecdotal comments from our customers that they are seeing fewer Lionfish.”

“It’s a day in – day out battle with no end, no stop point, but the culling is working,” agrees Divetech owner Nancy Easterbrook. Divetech operates two shore diving locations that are culled weekly. “We see less lionfish in sites that are regularly cleared.” At Sunset House visitors and locals alike are always on the lookout for the invaders.  Manager Keith Sahm also says culling works. “Guests see very few, if any, lionfish on their dives off Sunset House.”

The challenge is keeping up the enthusiasm and commitment for the long fight ahead.  “We are considering turning some of the monthly culls into social events with the fish being cooked and beer supplied at the Rum Point Club, or something similar for all participating cullers,” says McDowall.

Knowing that complete eradication of Lionfish is not realistic, Cayman’s dive operators want to keep the predator’s population in manageable numbers. Community involvement is the key to success, and competitions, cookouts and education raise awareness.  If you can’t beat them, eat them is a motto adopted by many in the Lionfish fight across the Caribbean and Florida.

“Luckily, as the fish is quite tasty…most people will order it after trying it once,” says Neil van Niekerk. “Restaurateurs are finally seeing the value in it thus keeping the cullers active.”  “Engaging and educating our customers to help in the battle is a win-win of both of us,” said Nancy Easterbrook, “we send them home with a message: ask for Lionfish at your favorite restaurant.”

Steve Broadbelt says the Lionfish problem is a perfect example of how government, businesses and members of the community can work together to achieve results together. “If we could all work together like this on other issues, the world would be a better place.”