Five years in, efforts to control lionfish reassessed


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ST. THOMAS - The proliferation of the Pacific lionfish throughout the U.S. Virgin Islands has led to a newly revised management plan.

In the summer of 2008, the territorial waters were free of lionfish.

In early 2009, divers and fishermen began to spot lionfish, first on St. Croix, then St. John and finally St. Thomas.

The zebra-striped spiny predators were first sighted off Florida in 1992. Since then, the invasive species has spread rapidly throughout the eastern seaboard and into the Caribbean.

Lionfish have a voracious appetite for smaller fish and can severely deplete fish populations that are necessary players in reefs' fragile ecosystems. It is a native of the western Pacific, and has no natural predators in the Atlantic Ocean or Caribbean Sea.

When the invasive species was first found in territorial waters, local divers and ecologist leapt on the problem, getting word out to the public about the serious economic and ecological threat the fish posed.

In October 2009, the first Lionfish Response Management Plan was presented to the public, drafted by biologist Barbara Kojis with a grant from V.I. Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research.

Five years later, it was time for the plan to be updated.

The revised plan recognizes that while the lionfish population can no longer be prevented from invading the territory's reefs, strategies may help slow the growth and protect specific reefs and areas from being wiped out.

"Since the creation of the original response plan in 2009, the severity of the lionfish invasion has worsened, local circumstances have changed, and researchers, managers and citizen groups are more organized and knowledgeable about what is working and what is not," the document said.

The goal of the plan is to provide a framework for local scientists, businesses, organizations, government agencies and individuals to work together to address the lionfish problem and help save the territory's reefs.

The update was done in collaboration with the V.I. Department of Planning and Natural Resources, Divisions of Fish and Wildlife and Coastal Zone Management with assistance from The Nature Conservancy. The update included community members, organizations, agencies and businesses that are active in lionfish control and those that are concerned about the impacts of the lionfish invasion.

In October, public meetings were held and questionnaires were sent out to get input from the public. A summary was put out in December and the final document released this month.

The updated report found that a dedicated effort to remove lionfish from specific areas - like dive sites and moorings - is effective at keeping the population low.

"However, lionfish are still found in higher numbers at particular sites, at depth and following storm events. Further studies may reveal the cause of these patterns of recruitment, migration and/or habitat preferences," the report states.

A handful of fishermen have started to successfully sell lionfish in local markets and to interested restaurants, which could be a good strategy for keeping the population at bay.

While up to 12 percent of the lionfish tested have ciguatera - or fish poisoning - that amount is about the same as other reef fish. No one in the Caribbean has reported fish poisoning from eating lionfish yet, according to the management plan.

"Promoting sale and consumption of lionfish by fishermen who already know hotspots of ciguatera to avoid in territorial waters increases the success of developing a safe and reliable market for lionfish," the report said.

The document listed a series of recommendations for immidiate action, as well as a list of strategies to take over the next five years.

The short-term actions include:

- Keeping a well-maintained mooring system to allow divers to conduct regular lionfish removal activities without having to drop anchor and damage reefs.

- Ceasing the practice of feeding dead or cut up lionfish to predators like sharks and eels in an attempt to give them a taste for the invasive species. The management plan said this practice does not work and can create a dangerous situation where predators are looking for food from humans. It is against DPNR policy to feed wildlife.

- Increasing communication with legislators on the impact of the lionfish invasion.

- Offering specialty courses on the safe and effective removal of lionfish. The CORE Foundation has developed the courses and the recommendation is to make them widely available.

- Creating a system for regular exchange of information, establishing a steering committee, and finding a long-term solution to organizing regular updates to the management plan.

Strategies for the next five years include: creating uniform messages to be used in education and outreach, improving lionfish removal by coordinated spearfishing and trap fishing, using research to guide control efforts, finding sustainable incentives for spear fishermen and recreational divers to kill lionfish, exploring effective methods for control and marketing and building a framework for communication and information-sharing.

"This plan is meant to be a living document with regular updates made to reflect current information and management strategies," the report said.

The public is invited to comment or make suggested changes to keep the document up to date. The comments can be sent in through the CORE and V.I. Reef Resilience Program websites.

The plan is available at www.corevi.org.

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