Cayman’s Godzilla

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Published in Cayman Airways Skies, By Sarah Sekula

James Gibb’s job at the Cayman Department of the Environment is anything but routine. On any given day he might help a shark researcher tag local shark species, study how Nassau groupers spawn in Little Cayman or perhaps lay transects for the coral reef monitoring project.

It’s a career that has him keenly focused on the serene waters surrounding Cayman, which might lead one to think believe that it’s a peaceful job. Well, it was, before the red lionfish invasion, that is.

It all started back in 2008 when the first lionfish was spotted off the shores of Little Cayman. With its white body, maroon stripes and billowy fins, it is a attractive fish, indeed. Yet, with its long venomous spikes along its spine and pectoral fins, a voracious appetite and the ability to rapidly reproduce, it is wrecking havoc on Cayman’s waters. The good news is: It’s not necessarily a threat to humans. More good news: Gibb, and others, is fighting back.

Fast forward to 2012, and there are now thousands of the pesky prowlers. For starters, they don’t have any natural predators in the warm Caribbean waters. What’s worse is the fact that females can produce up to 30,000 eggs every four days.

“They do have predators in their native ranges, but since they are a very recent addition into the Atlantic ecosystem the predators that live here and would usually target reef fish of that size, like grouper species, mutton snapper and barracuda, don’t recognize them as a food source,” says Gibb.

Where Did They Come From?

Their native habitat is the Indian and Pacific Oceans. So what, mind you, are they doing in Cayman? Some guess it’s due to people along the east coast of the United States releasing pet lionfish once they grew too large to keep contained.

Now that they are here, they are gobbling up everything in sight. In fact, this highly adaptable predator, known as a gluttonous feeder, can eat prey up to two thirds its size.

“They will eat and eat until they can fit no more into their stomachs, rest for a bit while their incredibly high metabolism processes the food and then repeat the process,” Gibb explains.

And they’re not just munching on reef fish, but also crustaceans like juvenile lobsters and crabs, cleaner shrimp and coral shrimp.

What does all of this mean? A huge chunk of the food chain is disappearing very rapidly. “If the lionfish are eating everything two thirds their size, and they can get as big as 18 inches, there is less food to go around for the natural larger predators causing an overall reduction on populations throughout the ecosystem,” he says.

Even worse, Gibb says he’s seen photographs taken in the Bahamas where you can clearly see eight or nine lionfish on a reef, and the scary thing is you don’t see any other fish in the picture. “That is not a good thing for anyone who makes their living from the ocean, whether its fisherman or scuba diving operators,” he says.

Sadly, studies show that lionfish can wipe out sea life on a reef in just a few weeks. So, it comes as no surprise that Gibb is worried. And he’s not the only one. Carrie Manfrino, president of the Central Caribbean Marine Institute, fears the fish are taking over, too.

What’s Being Done

“We still don’t know if removing 100 or 1,000 lionfish a week will make any impact on improving our native fish populations,” Manfrino says. “However, our work right now in the Cayman Islands aims to shed light on this question.”

Needless to say, marine scientists are taking the invasion by the lionfish seriously. At the Little Cayman Research Centre alone, there are six research projects on lionfish-related topics. The government of the Cayman Islands also has scientific teams researching the problem.

In the meantime, a whole community is being united. Locals are contributing funds and volunteering to hunt and remove lionfish. “Each week one of our dive clubs volunteers its resources to gather fish,” Manfrinto says. That adds up to an estimated 1,000 man hours of effort each year.

But it begs the question: From a scientific perspective, does removing a hundred fish from the reef every week, while new fish might be arriving by the millions every day, make a difference? Is it really possible to protect the native fish this way? The answer is not so obvious.

CCMI has self-funded a research project to figure this out, but by summertime their funding will run dry. “We want to know what effort it will take to reduce the pressure on Bloody Bay Marine Park,” Manfrino says. “If we solve this mystery, we can use this information to encourage other marine-protected areas to take similar steps. By continuing our study, we will determine whether we need to remove 500 fish every week, or maybe 1000 fish, or whether it is hopeless.”

While no one is sure if catching lionfish will make a difference, the good news, Manfrino says, is that few marine invasions have been successful.

WHAT CAN YOU DO?

EAT UP
Lion fish are quite tasty, and several local restaurants now have them on the menu. Chefs denature the fish’s venom by cooking the fish with the spines on. Once the spines are carefully removed, there is no danger, and it is as safe to handle as other eating fish.

— Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink — Grand Cayman
— Tukka — Grand Cayman
— Pirates Point — Little Cayman
— Southern Cross Club — Little Cayman

Recipes:

Lionfish Carpaccio
4 fillets of lionfish
1/2 cup onions
1/2 olive oil
3 tablespoons capers
1/4 cup and 2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 baguette, thinly sliced

Thinly slice the lionfish fillets so they are almost translucent. Thinly slice onion. Put the lionfish and the onion on a platter. Stir olive oil, lemon juice and sugar in a bowl together until combined. Add capers, poor mixture on top of the lionfish and onion platter. Serve with slices of baguette.

Coconut Baked Lionfish
2 teaspoons grated ginger
4 red chillies
8 lionfish fillets
2 cups coconut milk
Limejuice from 3 limes
4 tablespoons fish sauce
2 tablespoons sesame oil
3 tablespoons fresh cilantro

Preheat the over to 375 degrees. Place lionfish in an ovenproof dish. Combine coconut milk, lime juice, fish sauce, sesame oil, grated ginger and diced chilies and cilantro. Poor over lionfish. Bake in oven for 15 minutes. Garnish with fresh cilantro.

DIVE IN
Several dive shops offer a PADI Lionfish Tracker Distinctive Specialty course. Upon completion, guests receive the PADI c-card plus the local lion fish culling license.

— Divetech
— Ocean Frontiers
— Deep Blue Divers
— Cayman Turtle Divers
— Divers Down
— Dive N Stuff

DONATE

If you would like to make a contribution to the Little Cayman Research Centre, contact Kate Pellow at kpellow@reefresearch.org. Or, contribute to the Dollar a Dive campaign at local resorts.


* Recipes are from the REEF Lionfish Cookbook by Tricia Ferguson and Lad Atkins.