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Waging war on Island’s lionfish menace

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A full-time, deep sea culling programme to help to control the number of invasive lionfish is being created by the Ocean Support Foundation.

The marine conservation charity is seeking corporate and individual contributions to help cover the cost of three of its members becoming paid cullers.

Eventually the group is hoping to hire another three to ensure there is a constant presence on the reefs.

Only technical divers are able to reach depths of 200-plus feet, where most lionfish are found.

OSF's tech dive team of three — president Graham Maddocks, executive director Alex Chequer and scientific advisor Dr Gretchen Goodbody-Gringley — are diving on a voluntary basis and have their own jobs to hold down.

The charity is planning a fundraising and educational event, expected to be in May, featuring presentations, a lionfish fry and entertainment.

Mr Maddocks told The Royal Gazette: “If we don't start taking lionfish out of the water they are going to run right over the top of us. We are not just pulling this out of a hat — people have already done this in the Caribbean. We are also planning to have guest [technical] divers to come in and help train people and help with culling particular spots.”

Dr Goodbody-Gringley said: “In the Caribbean it is backed by their Governments. I don't think we will get that in Bermuda because of the economic state, so we are looking for interested parties who are looking to conserve biodiversity and the marine ecosystem.”

The first sighting of a lionfish in Bermuda was in 1999. It is believed they were accidentally introduced to the Atlantic by humans. The Indo-Pacific fish has no natural predator here and feeds on native and endemic fish.

In places such as the Bahamas, lionfish have decimated fish populations. In the past year, 928 lionfish have been reported to OFS as being caught in Bermuda mainly through deep-sea culling and shallow water spear fishing. The main hot spots appear to be on the far east and west sides of the Island on the south side.

For the past two years, the OSF has been working on a collaborative project with the Department of Conservation Services, BAMZ, Environmental Protection and BIOS surveying Bermuda's reefs. Having surveyed about 15 spots around the Island, they have established a baseline figure on the lionfish population, for comparison with future surveys.

Dr Goodbody-Gringley said: “Now we can go forward to determine how the population is changing over time. We are looking at very small numbers above 150ft. After 150ft you are looking at 100 fish per hectare [about two-and-a-half acres] and below 200ft there are 350 fish per hectare.

“That number [at 200ft and beyond] is the same density they have in the shallow waters of the Bahamas, and that is considered one of the most heavily impacted areas. That is why we are targeting the deep location.”

She also wanted to debunk the myth that lionfish would not affect our fish populations as they are mainly found in the deep.

“When we do the lionfish surveys, we also survey the small fish [which lionfish would target] and the density of fish is exactly the same in the shallow reef as it is at 200ft. It is just a shift in species. It is a thriving ecosystem down there.”

OSF is also working on a programme to educate young people about the problem. The charity will go to middle and high schools to share information about the deep-sea culling programme, lionfish in general and how to get involved.

Bermuda High School has completed a project about the charity and its work, and made a video that will be shown at the OSF fundraiser.

“We have done all of this work so far because we are concerned but it is Bermuda's problem and it is a serious problem — it is worse than the fish pots of the 80s,” Mr Maddocks said. “If these lionfish continue to destroy the Caribbean, Bermuda could be one of the few places in the Atlantic that has a healthy coral reef system.”

Those interested in supporting OSF can contact foundation@oceansupport.org. For more information, visit www.oceansupport.org

A lionfish stalks the reef near the wreck of the Hermes on the south shore off Warwick Long Bay (File photo)
Ocean Support Foundation's Alex Chequer (left), Dr Gretchen Goodbody-Gringley and Graham Maddocks (Photo by Akil Simmons)
Ocean Support Foundation's Alex Chequer (left), Dr Gretchen Goodbody-Gringley and Graham Maddocks (Photo by Akil Simmons)

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Published March 20, 2015 at 9:00 am (Updated March 20, 2015 at 9:33 am)

Waging war on Island’s lionfish menace

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