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Beautiful, deadly Lionfish seen at Mt. Wynne beach

Beautiful, deadly Lionfish seen at Mt. Wynne beach

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A consultation with the general public is expected to be held by the Fisheries Division of the Ministry of Agriculture, Industry, Forestry, Fisheries and Rural Transformation concerning the handling of the habitat-threatening lionfish.{{more}}

A senior official in the Division informed SEARCHLIGHT that this consultation will take place as early as next week, following reports that the deadly predatory species has been spotted at various locations in the nation’s waters, including the Tobago Cays Marine Park.

But one person who has seen the beautiful, but venomous, killer believes that unless some action is taken immediately, the situation could get out of control very quickly.

Nancy Saul-Demers, the latest person to report seeing the fish, which not only preys on other fish, but also on many invertebrate species, said she is reaching out to as many persons as possible, since the issue needs to be dealt with, with more urgency.

“I don’t think that there is a huge need for any bureaucracy. I think right now we have an issue with one identified animal, and it needs to be dealt with, and I hate to see anyone wait for a meeting or a consultation or anything, else it could be dealt with quickly and immediately by the marine park staff.”

In a letter sent to a number of local and governmental institutions, including the Ministry of Agriculture and the Prime Minister’s office, on Tuesday February 28, and which was copied to SEARCHLIGHT, Saul-Demers wrote that she, along with two other companions, spotted the dreaded fish while scuba diving in the Cays the day before.

Speaking to SEARCHLIGHT by telephone on Tuesday 28 from Union Island, where she resides, said she went looking for the fish, after she had heard about its presence.

“I had heard a rumour that there was one, and lionfish are very particular about their location; they tend to stay in one area, so when I heard there was one, I went to see if in fact there was one, and he was exactly where he had been sighted previously.

Saul-Demers said that the occasion was a bittersweet one, since the fish was ‘absolutely beautiful to look at’, but on the other hand, it was horrifying to see it in the Park, since she was aware of its devastating nature, and the effects it could have on the Park, which she says she cares about a lot.

A single female lionfish can spawn up to two million eggs per year after becoming sexually mature, and the carnivorous fish can consume over 70 species of other marine animals within a very short period.

After the fish’s entry into an area, the survival of other reef fish can be diminished by about 80 per cent in a matter of weeks.

The species has no known predator in these parts.

Saul-Demers, an experienced scuba diver, who claims that she has done more than 500 dives in the Marine Park, estimates that the fish she saw was about six inches in length.

A volunteer for the local reef organization, she said that at that size, the fish is still in its juvenile stage, and is not yet at the size where it can breed, and have a more severe impact on the health of the reef.

She pointed out that she would prefer to see the animal in the Indian Ocean where they belong, and not in these parts where they can cause havoc.

“They have natural predators there (Indian Ocean). The problem in the Atlantic Ocean is that they are not a native species and they have no natural predators here.

“In most areas that have a lionfish problem, their solution is to encourage the local fishermen to catch them, and they encourage restaurants to serve them.

“However, we have a particular challenge because of course, fishing is not allowed in the Tobago Cays Marine Park, and you are not allowed to take anything out of the water, so that makes it difficult to go and spear it.

In response to Saul-Demers’ letter, Olando Harvey, a marine biologist at the Tobago Cays Marine Park, indicated that steps will be taken to mitigate the impact of the species within the Park, using a two pronged approach: a public awareness campaign and targeted extraction.

“As you are aware,” the letter stated: “Once this invasive species is established on the reefs, it is virtually impossible to completely eradicate them. Consequently, we have to develop strategies to ‘co-exist’ with them….” Harvey wrote.

However, Saul-Demers disagrees.

In her response, she said that she believes that immediate action should be taken to ensure the removal of all lionfish in the marine park.

“We have done 12 dives in the TCMP in the past 10 days and have only seen one lionfish, so I believe that at this point complete eradication is a very reasonable and achievable goal.”

“With quick action, as well as continued vigilance and timely follow-up by your staff and that of the local dive shops (Grenadines Dive and Dive Canouan), this species should not have an opportunity to get established anywhere in theTobago Cays Marine Park.”

She affirmed that she will be happy to point out where the fish was spotted, so that it could be extracted.

She also suggested that authorization be given to local dive masters to spear and remove lionfish from TCMP waters on sight.

“They are more likely than anyone else to be ready, willing and able to take timely effective action. “

“The Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) who trained me on fish identification and for whom I voluntarily conduct fish surveys, have done a number of regional lionfish workshops (see http://www.reef.org/lionfish/workshops). These workshops “include developing detailed action plans for lionfish removal, how to encourage lionfish as a commercial fisheries and getting the community involved.

“You might want to consider contacting them for information and assistance as you develop your mitigation strategy.”

Saul-Demers was not the only person reporting a Lion fish sighting to SEARCHLIGHT, and indicated that this was reported to the Fisheries Department.

On that same day, Canadian Pastor Robert ‘Bob’ Verkoyen, accompanied by his sons Daniel and Andrew, visited SEARCHLIGHT with photos of one of the predators, which they say were taken about 100 feet north of Mount Wynne Beach on the mainland’s Leeward coast, on February 22, when they, along Bob’s wife Eleanor, were snorkeling.

The fish was first spotted by Daniel.

“I dove down to see a fish and I looked to my left and I saw the Lion Fish, so I swam up and then I called my dad over and we were getting pictures of it,” he recalled.

“I study fish all the time,” indicated Bob, who along with other missionaries are here in St. Vincent from Ontario, for three months since December on their annual ‘Barrels of Blessings’ campaign.

“So I showed them before we went diving; I said if you see one of these, let me know because they are very dangerous fish, so then they know what to look for; So when they saw it they alerted me.”

Based on his observation, he indicated that the animal was in its juvenile state because of its size (4-6 inches) and its transparent tail.

Also professing to be a diving enthusiast, Verkoyen said that the there was a tinge of excitement and disappointment in spotting the fish in the waters.

“You are excited to get the first picture of a fish like that, but then you are not excited because they are predators and they don’t have any predators; they are reported some possible predators, but not enough to take care of them.

Some possible enemies of the lionfish are sharks, groupers and cornet fish.

Verkoyen said that he had read previous SEARCHLIGHT articles where he was informed that the fish was found in waters elsewhere off the island, and felt that it was important to make authorities aware of his family’s sighting.

Like Saul-Demers, he is curious as to what steps authorities will be taking to address the situation, which he also pointed out can get out of hand in a very short space of time.

“I’m not a specialist on how to get rid of a fish like that, (but) I think the fisheries or whoever is in charge have to take this seriously; do what they can do to eliminate the problem, or curtail it somehow.”

The lionfish was first identified in Vincentian waters in November 2011 and has been also spotted off Indian Bay and Bequia.

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