Thousands of lionfish now in V.I.


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ST. THOMAS - Three public meetings will be held this week to provide information about the Indo-Pacific lionfish and solidify plans to combat the invasive species - which now numbers in the thousands in the waters around the territory.

On St. John, the Caribbean Oceanic Restoration and Education Foundation (C.O.R.E.) will hold an informational meeting about the lionfish from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Mongoose Junction courtyard in Cruz Bay.

C.O.R.E. comprises a group of resident divers and businesses working to combat the lionfish invasion.

The National Park Service will partner with C.O.R.E. for the educational presentation and share information on the lionfish invasion in territorial marine parks.

C.O.R.E President Joseph Gulli said the meeting will provide a clear understanding of the threat the lionfish pose to local fisheries, tourism, reefs and the economy.

The Indo-Pacific lionfish is not native to the waters of the Caribbean Sea or Atlantic Ocean. The species first was sighted in territorial waters on Nov. 25, 2008, according to the Department of Planning and Natural Resources' Fish and Wildlife Division.

Since then, the fish has spread to the waters of all islands in the territory and is commonly caught in fish traps and speared by people hunting for it.

It threatens reefs because it has a voracious appetite for native juvenile reef fish and has no natural predators in the region.

"We're doing a public awareness campaign so the public can see what all the hoopla is about," Gulli said. "It is a lot more than just a little fish in the water."

Gulli said the biology of the fish, its spread into the Atlantic Ocean and its threats to the economy, tourism and fishery will be discussed in detail at the meeting.

"When we learned about the lionfish, we got in the water. We hit specific targeted groups of people to help target the problem," Gulli said. "Now we want the public to understand the problem that is just outside our shores."

William Coles, the chief of Environmental Education at the V.I. Department of Planning and Natural Resources Division of Fish and Wildlife, also will host a meeting for anyone concerned with lionfish at Rainbow Plaza in Fredericksted at 10 a.m. today.

Coles said the meeting is meant to plan for future management of the lionfish.

Since its arrival in the territory in 2008, lionfish have spread prolifically. Coles is the main point of contact to report lionfish sightings or kills, and he said that at this point the numbers have grown to the point that it is difficult to say how many have been killed around the territory.

"It's thousands," Coles said, "There are so many that are being killed by fishermen, commercial fishermen, it's overwhelming."

Coles said that fishermen often call him with reports of 30 or more lionfish captured in a single day.

He said anyone with ideas about management of the pest is welcome to come to the meeting.

"We need to find out what all of our resources are," Coles said. "Unless we invite the public in to be involved, we will never know. There are a lot of things that need to be done."

A second C.O.R.E. Lionfish Public Awareness Presentation will be held on St. Thomas on Thursday from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Windward Passage Hotel.

Another C.O.R.E. meeting also is planned for St. Croix in the near future, but the date, time and place have not been scheduled.

- Contact Sean McCoy 774-8772 ext. 365 or e-mail smccoy@dailynews.vi.

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