A $265,000 research grant has been presented to the Bermuda Lionfish Task Force to help combat the invasive species.
Donated by Darwin Plus: Overseas Territories Environment and Climate Fund, the funds will be used to carry out a lionfish population density study and develop a lionfish-specific trap for commercial fisherman.
The money will also be used to determine how much of Bermuda’s lionfish population is sustained by local reproduction.
Jim Gleeson, chairman of the Task Force, said: “We look forward to creating a control plan and doing what in necessary to get this menace under control.”
Lionfish are native to the Indian and Pacific Oceans, and are a popular aquarium fish due to their long, distinctive fins which contain venomous spines.
They are not native to the Atlantic Ocean, but were accidentally released off the coast of Florida in the 1980s. The species are voracious predators that consume large numbers of small fish, but have no natural predators.
Their numbers have grown steadily since they were first discovered in our waters in 2000.
Mr Gleeson said that while the lionfish locally have typically been found in waters deeper than 200ft, they have been spotted more and more frequently closer to the Island.
“These are in 50ft or less, so they are moving up the column,” he said. “And these are not small ones. We are talking about 15, 17, 18-inch lionfish that we are seeing on a regular basis.
“That’s why we are concerned, and that’s why we need everybody to help out.”
In an effort to support necessary research into the issue, the Task Force submitted an application to Darwin Plus entitled “Bermuda Invasive Lionfish Control Initiative”, and were awarded the grant, valued at £169,898.
Mr Gleeson noted that the Department of Environmental Protection will this summer be carrying out a trapping experiment with lobster fisherman after they had some success catching the fish during the lobster season.
“That’s also included in the Darwin Grant, supporting that initiative. It’s gotten a lot of notice from the UK Government,” Mr Gleeson said.
“We are restricting it to lobster traps. We do not want to go back to fish pots, but we think we can modify those traps to some degree to increase the number of lionfish, and hopefully we can do that year-round.
“We have to be careful that the measures we take to control this fish don’t damage the reefs and other native fish that we are trying to protect.”
Despite their venomous fins, he said the fish are not poisonous, while Sylvan Richards, Minister of Environment and Planning, said they taste similar to grouper.
“Targeting lionfish for the table can help control their population in a cost effective manner, and this strategy has been implemented in various forms throughout the region,” Mr Richards said.
“However robust and innovative strategies are needed to tackle the challenge presented by a continual supply of lionfish larvae travelling up the Gulf Stream and the difficulties posed by the depths at which these fish are found locally.”
While he said it is impossible to eradicate the species in Bermuda, the population can be controlled.
“As a Government, we are going to look at all different avenues to empower Bermudians, especially Bermudian fisherman, so we can get this threat under control,” Mr Richards said.