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Lionfish-catching robot to move to Florida

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The Atlantic Lionshare boat Atlantic Security (Photograph supplied)

Bad news for lionfish eaters — the local supply of the delicious nuisance fish is about to shrink.

Reefsweeper, a remote operated vehicle used by company Atlantic Lionshare to spear, collect and sell lionfish, is moving to Destin, Florida.

“This was always part of the plan,” said Elizabeth Martin, who founded Atlantic Lionshare with her husband Darius in 2014. “Florida gave us $50,000 towards our research and development. Part of that contract specified that we had to be in Florida, around June 2019, removing fish for them. We have stayed here as long as we can, but we do have obligations to go to other places.”

Mr Martin and his son Nick, plan to drive their $320,000 ROV to Florida on the company boat, Atlantic Security, later this month.

“It should take about a week to get there,” Mrs Martin said. Mr and Mrs Martin are Bermudian, and will continue to live here.

“No one is quitting their day job,” Mrs Martin said.

She said Florida’s lionfish problem is much worse than Bermuda’s.

“They had a tournament in Florida a couple of weeks ago, and in four days divers caught almost 20,000 fish,” she said.

By contrast, their ROV only picked up 48 lionfish over a 7-hour fishing expedition last week.

Bermuda has a lionfish problem because the Gulf Stream has brought them up from Florida, so Mrs Martin reasons that solving the lionfish problem down south, will benefit Bermuda.

Atlantic Lionshare will be working with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to cull the lionfish around Florida and the Gulf of Mexico.

Mrs Martin said they are taking their time as a company, right now, but will probably have to buy more boats and build more ROVs like Reefsweeper, to keep up with the problem there.

She said despite all the lionfish in Florida waters, divers still have trouble collecting enough fish, consistently, to keep restaurants supplied.

“If they want to make a menu item they need to keep consistent amounts and be able to offer that consistent plate of food,” she said. “If they can’t count on the fish showing up every week they can’t do that.”

The Martins first had the idea for the lionfish-catching ROV, in 2014.

“I asked my husband if he had time on a Friday to get us a lobster for dinner,” Mrs Martin said. “He had just enough time to go out and hit one of his honeyholes.”

But when Mr Martin got there he was disappointed to find a lionfish living in his favourite lobster hole.

“Lobsters and lionfish like the same kind of holes,” she said. “If a lionfish kicks a lobster out, he won’t go back in. So we discussed the problem, what needed to be done and jumped in.”

They had an entrepreneurial spirit, but no experience with lionfish. Mrs Martin is an insurance broker at Atlantic Security Ltd in Hamilton. Mr Martin runs Island Pool Service, and his son Nick runs Bermy Blue Pool Service.

They found a robotics team in Dexter, Michigan to help build their ROV.

“The concept was to build an ROV that would successfully remove lionfish in commercial numbers at deep depths with no bicatch,” she said.

The first prototype arrived in 2017, but didn’t work properly.

“That was a suction-only machine,” she said. “It had an amazing amount of suction, but it wasn’t enough.”

What they hadn’t taken into account was that lionfish spend their entire lives fighting back strong suction in the form of tidal currents and surges.

“The little stinkers stuck their fins into the side of the rock and just held on,” Mrs Martin said. “I said okay, round two.”

From a boat, operators use cameras and lasers to spot the right fish, aim, and shoot it with a spear. The fish is then sucked into a collection basket.

“Our shallowest fish was caught in 63ft and our deepest was in 490ft,” Mrs Martin said.

She urged Bermuda to continue to support local cullers, and the Bermuda Lionfish Taskforce.

“Without their efforts, lionfish will destroy our reefs,” she said. “Our lionfish population is not as bad as Florida or the Bahamas, but it would be without all the local efforts going into controlling the numbers.”

For more information see www.atlanticlionshare.com or their Facebook page

The lionfish hunting ROV Reefsweeper (Photograph supplied)
The ROV Reefsweeper uses cameras to find and hunt lionfish (Photograph supplied)