Lionfish threaten Sister Islands’ economies

| 26/07/2011

(CNS): The infestation of lionfish on the Cayman Islands reefs, which has been described in the Legislative Assembly as “a national emergency”, is threatening the diving industry in Cayman Brac and Little Cayman, according to the Sister Islands Tourism Association (SITA). A removal programme for the lionfish within Bloody Bay Marine Park in Little Cayman has been in place since January this year, thanks to the assistance of volunteer divers from that island, but SITA members are now requesting funds from government for a formal and more aggressive culling policy. Meanwhile, scientists at the Little Cayman Research Centre (LCRC) are currently conducting the first formal assessment of the impact of lionfish culling.

In a letter to Mark Scotland, the minister with responsibility for the environment, SITA said that its members were deeply concerned that the lionfish invasion affecting Cayman Brac, Little Cayman and the rest of the Caribbean region “is destroying our marine life and therefore threatens our livelihoods and therefore our economic existence.” Noting that dive tourism constitutes 90% of overall tourism in the Sister Islands and that there was very little to be offered aside from that as a tourist draw, the letter stated that tourists were already noticing changes in Sister Islands reefs and negative comments about diving in Cayman Brac and Little Cayman had already been posted on travel websites such as

The letter pointed to scientific studies which found that the invasive red lionfish (Pterois volitans) are voracious hunters that can eat anything up to 2/3 of their own body size and they have no natural predator in the Caribbean except humans. SITA also cited research in the Bahamas which found that "substantial reduction of adult abundance will require a long¬ term commitment and may be feasible only in small, localized areas where annual exploitation can be intense over multiple consecutive years."

Since January dive operations on Little Cayman have been sending out one dive boat per week at their own expense each Wednesday afternoon with several teams of volunteer divers to cull lionfish in the Bloody Bay Marine Park. However, SITA told the minister, "We believe that the only way to slow this problem down is for teams of divers to cull lionfish on a full time basis. Clearly, this cannot be done on a once per week basis by volunteers during their spare time. Action needs to be taken immediately by the Government, a private company, or a combination ofthe two.”

Estimating the start-up cost of a culling operation on each island at US$98,000 and annual operating costs to amount to US$136,900 for each operation, SITA said, “Our proposal would be an effective way of controlling lionfish populations at a much more extensive level than just a few localized areas. We are confident that the proposal would help control lionfish populations on all the reefs around the Sister Islands." Annual operating costs could be supplemented by the sale of lionfish fillets to Sister Islands restaurants, SITA noted.

In his contribution to the budget debate in June, First Elected Member for Cayman Brac and Little Cayman, Moses Kirkconnell, said that stakeholders in the Sister Islands considered the lionfish invasion a national emergency. “If something is not done soon to curtail this lionfish invasion, we will all expect the continued degradation of the reef itself, which will soon lead to permanent damage for the economy in both [Sister] islands,” he told MLAs.

Noting that there was a need to form a national policy, he said the Cayman Islands would be “the only country that has stepped up to the plate, made a commitment and put ourselves forward to keep our reefs pristine and ensure that part of our tourism industry continues to be vibrant and works for our local economy.”

In the Lionfish Removal Effort Assessment, researchers at the Little Cayman Research Centre, which is owned and operated by the Central Caribbean Marine Institute (CCMI), are looking at how many lionfish exist within the boundaries of Bloody Bay Marine Park, whether the culling programme is effectively reducing the number of lionfish in Bloody Bay Marine Park, how effective are divers at removing the lionfish with spears and/or nets and how much effort is needed to reduce lionfish numbers.

The lionfish have been present in Little Cayman since 2009 and CCMI says anecdotal reports indicate that their size and numbers have been increasing steadily over the past three years. The aim of CCMI researchers is to collect the necessary data to offer information on the actual impact the weekly culls are having on the lionfish population. Each week lionfish population density data will be collected at specific dive sites before they are culled, and there will also be a few control sites with no culling to establish baseline lionfish numbers. The data collected during this project will then be used to complete a formal assessment of the current management plan in place and inform management decisions in the future.


Joshua Dilbert, a 15-year-old CNS summer intern, contributed to this article.

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  1. Just Commentin' says:

    Bring back spearfishing!

    Ideally the goal is not to capture the damn things, but to kill 'em. Right?

    OK! Give me a spear gun without a barb on the tip and I will kill many times the number of those pesky critters than any whole team of divers could capture by netting in the same amount of time.

    I would be a freakin' lionfish Rambo!

    Dead lionfish would be everywhere. The dead lionfish might prove tasty enough to whatever eats 'em that they might eventually acquire a taste for lionfish.

    Forget the license for "culling". Too bloody much bureaucracy. The Cayman Islands Government loves to make things complicated and ineffective. It seems to be in their mission statement.  The lionfish population is cause for a "state of emergency"  and our moronic government is poking around with training courses and Culling Licenses. Not to mention all the studies and reports. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

    Here is the simple equation: Lionfish = bad, killing lionfish = good; so forget all the studies and reports and just do the good in the simplest way possible. Let's promote whatever it takes to kill the pests in meaningful numbers.

    I say, if the reefs are being imperiled and jobs and the economy are at risk, I should think that It is time for drastic action! If government is serious about wanting dead lionfish then they need to act accordingly, damn it!

    I propose making it legal for anyone who likes killing things for fun toexecute the mothas with whatever implement they have at hand that would not involve getting close enough to get stung: spear gun or pole spear, striker, harpoon, (all with barb-less points), sharpened stick, Ninja sword, baseball bat, nunchuks, whatever.

    Let's compare.
    The "DOE Approved Method":
    After applying in advance for enrollment for an appointment to take the Lionfish Culler course, I attend class and I complete the required course. After undergoing the specialised training course I acquire my license. Ooooo! I am now "Licensed To Cull" (hell, KILL) lionfish. Yippie!!!  Kinda like a lionfish 007.

    I am now in the water on my first expedition as a fully trained, qualified and government licensed Lionfish Culler. I am equipped with a net, special puncture-resistant gloves – and I have a special bag to carry 'em home – even though all I want to do is kill lionfish and rescue our land from a dire emergency.

    I spot a lionfish. Shhh!  Quiet, now!  I'm huntin' wabbits – I mean lionfish.

    I approach and stalk the bugger carefully. I finally corner the fish and manoeuver to get it and me in proper position to net it. When finally in position I net it. (High five!)

    Hmmm…Once the fish is netted my troubles begin. Gee… Now I have to take the time to carefully remove the venomous fish from the net and bag it. Regardless of my highly specialised training, I risk getting stung. I don't know about you, but I hate even the remotest prospect of getting stung.

    When my bag becomes crowded enough to be a hazard I have to surface and deal a bag full of angry venomous fish. This is not good.

    Once I have my bag of lionfish home I have to go through the process of neutralising the venom and removing the spines. Then comes cleaning the fish. Really not good. I do not like the taste of lionfish enough to go through the whole detox and cleaning process. Besides, even the slight risk of receiving a very painful and potentially fatal wound to "cull" a fish I do not care to eat makes it totally not worth my time and is no fun for me.

    So when I see a lionfish I just wave and give him lots of leeway and we part ways with no one getting hurt. (Lionfish-1, Humans-0). Which is what the present dumb and dumber DOE policy encourages – apathy and the fewest number of "cullers" possible. No damn wonder the lionfish are winning!

    My sweet and simple, "Just Commentin Method":
    I'm in the water with my trusty spear gun. I wanna kill me some lionfish. I see a lionfish, get close, aim, smile, shoot, with a quick jerk yank out the barbless shaft, emit a wicked triumphant laugh through my regulator and off I go looking for my next victim.

    And so goes my afternoon as Lionnfish Rambo: spot, aim, smile, shoot, withdraw, laugh, repeat. Yeah! This is fun!  In an afternoon I will kill a whole LOT of lionfish. My spearfishing buddies and I will wager a case of Greenies on who will kill the most lionfish. There will be a lot fewer lionfish around when we get out of the water.

    Now tell me, which method is more efficient at making for lots of dead lionfish?

    If their is any doubt do a pilot project using the "Just Commentin' Method" on Cayman Brac and Little Cayman. Here is a challenge: I will fly to Little Cayman and take on the DOE team to a Lionfish killin' faceoff for a case of Greenies and bragging rights. I use my trusty Champion spear gun and they use their cute little nets. Who do ya think will win?

    Hellooooo??? D.O.E.? Anybody home? Any takers on my wager??? Gettin' smart yet? Yeah, right.

    (Ooopsss! Did someone just say "shaaaarrrrrkkkk" ???!!!)

    • Anonymous says:

      I hate to think all the other species lionfish rambo would kill if he was let loose with a spear.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Calling all Divers! Come to the Cayman Islands and help cull Lionfish!


    Come one, Come all!  Come everyone!


    The waters are warm and clear.  The lionfish are abundant and the diving is wonderful! 


    Come with your families! Come by yourself!  Come for a getaway!


  3. Anonymous says:

    I nominate myself for a goverment paid position as lionfish eradicator. I would love to get paid to live in little cayman, go diving and spearfishing everyday. Where can i send my application.

  4. I'm DOE licensed, but... says:

    As a frequent Cayman visitor, I made it a point to take the DOE training in 2010.

    …but I can’t bring a Lionfish spear with me, because of Cayman Customs laws….

    Had I been able to bring a spear, I easily could have taken out 20+ breeding adults on just my last visit. By today, those same fish have since laid another 600,000 eggs.

    Frankly, most dive tourists for the past 20 years have never even thought about spearfishing. Time to rethink the laws in terms of how much the sport has changed.

    • Anonymous says:

      Contact DOE when you get here, if you have a license, you can probably borrow one for your stay..

  5. Anonymous says:

    Maybe to help the diving aspect of tourism, operators should be allowed to include Lionfish culling in their packages. After a brief lesson and if they qualify (depending on their diving experience) visiting divers can participate in culling when they visit the Cayman Islands. Knowing that may get more people down to the Islands.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Perhaps the DOE should arrange frequent "Lion Fish Culling days" (similar to a Clean-up day etc) to promote this issue and encourage the ones who are licensed and willing to come out, catch those fish and at the end of the day socialize at a BBQ or something. Maybe more people would get into it. Also, that way boats can be organized to take out some, other groups can be organized to go from shore etc. There needs to be something done to getting something going. Also, DOE needs to be more approachable for calls about sightings etc. If the general public feels that it may take days for someone to go and get the fish they saw somewhere, I am sure they are not going to bother and call again……

  7. Anonymous says:

    Isn't there something that we could pave to keep the lionfish away?

  8. Anonymous says:

    Yet when this issue was first raised the DOE made it so difficult for divers to cull Lionfish so the problem accelerated very quickly. Everybody should be allowed to kill these fish, this should have been the case from the first day. No licence no special course needed. This delay because of the red tape might seal the fate of Cayman's reefs. I don't see any licence needed to kill the iguanas or the chickens?

    • Anonymous says:

      Spot on my friend, I have been diving many times and could have caught and killed a few of these buggers..if not for the illogical requirement to get a licence first. Who was the brainiac behind that idea?

      • Rebel says:

        I started killing green iguanas as soon as they appeared in my yard, and long before the legislation that protected them was amended. As long as your hands are clean and your heart is pure, I say kill a lionfish if you find one.

    • Anonymous says:

      The problem with allowing this is that the lion fish has poisonous fins.

      From Wikipedia:

      Lionfish are known for their venomous tentacles, a feature that is uncommon among marine fish in the East Coast coral reefs. The potency of their venom makes them excellent predators and dangerous to fishermen and divers. [2] Pterois venom produced negative inotropic and chronotropic effects when tested in both frog and clam hearts [7] and has a depressing effect on rabbit blood pressure.[8] These results are thought to be due to nitric oxide release. [6] In humans, Pterois venom can cause systemic effects such as vomiting, fever and sweating and has been lethal in a few cases. [6]

      • R.U. Kiddin says:

        I shall beware of those dangerous tentacles….. and will not take any frogs, clams or rabbits along when I go after lionfish.  Besides causing vomiting, fever and sweating, I have heard that it is really painful to get stuck!  Be careful.

  9. lawrence says:

    Lionfish does not have to threaten Sister Island's economy – EAT THEM!  "Restaurante de Leo Pescados"  – how does that sound?

  10. Anonymous says:

    If the DOE had not been so cocky that they could handle the problem themselves and had invited and encouraged the general public to join forces with them to help control these fish from the beginning we would not be having this discussion.  By eliminating the general public and restricting them from using their disctretion and whatever tools they had available to take these creatures, we now have a huge problem that is only going to continue to get worse.  Not everyone has the funds or time to attend their forums or buy the gear required.  And by the same token, not everyone is a lobster or conch poacher here.  I for example am a law abiding citizen and on top of that I am very concerned about and respectful of our environment and I would be able to take many lionfish out of the equation on my snorkeling and diving adventures, however, not being able to carry a hook stick or pointed object to do this with renders me ineffective in this fight and doing so subjects me to breaking the law.  I do not think one has to be a divemaster to help eradicate these fish.  Many of us are capable of helping in this fight and should be encouraged to do so.  In my opinion the North Sound and 7-Mile Beach areas are monitored by the Marine Police and would help disuade possible poachers of conchs and lobsters with their presence.  These derelicts are doing it every day anyway.  We could daily be reducing the lionfish numbers and could even be encouraged to sell the larger ones to restaurants as they are a delicious eating fish if we were allowed to do so with hook sticks and othermeans that the laws now exclude.  By not taking the lionfish out we are all going to lose our livelihood, here and in the Sister Islands because when there are only lionfish left on our reefs and walls no one will come here to dive and having a moratorium on conchs and lobsters or groupers will be meaningless.  I say involve everyone in this fight…promote it and promote restaurants and hotels that are willing to buy these fish and offer them on their menus…..allow us to use hook sticks or other pointed objects…at least even until lobster season opens….I guarantee you would see a great reduction in the lionfish population.  Beaurocracy and the long drawn out process of studies and reports before anything is done is going to be our reefs demise.  Change the law to allow hook sticks even with including an exception for during lobster season, but like I said poachers are out there any way and particular attention could be spent on them, the minority, not us, the majority who want to save Cayman in every way. 

  11. Anonymous says:

    No mention of Grand Cayman reefs!  I remember seeing Lion Fish in North Side years ago and wondering what on earth they were!

  12. Anonymous says:

    i love karma!….after years of caymanians raping the oceans…. mother nature figihts back

  13. Anonymous says:

    cayman brac has an economy??????

  14. Mike & Judy Nye says:

    Joshua, great article, and congrats on working with CNS!  Keep up the good journalism.

  15. Sea Life Lover says:

    The lionfish are all over the Caribbean now and have become a menace! Their main predator is the grouper, but it is not enough as they multiply very quickly. When divers go down and kill or injure these fish so they are prey to other fish, it makes a signifcant difference. This change can be seen in Grand Cayman's waters. It would be good if the people are paid to kill/injure these fish, especially as they have such a negative impact on the underwater environment.  

  16. Anonymous says:

    Please hire unemployed Caymanians for this job, check with Social Services. These guys and girls can be trained to do this, this does not require  a expat divemaster.

    • Anonymous says:

      It also doesn't require an expat to work as a dive master in the numerous dive companies that are in all three islands or the bars, it's cheaper and easier to employ Caymanians in these positions so where are they???? Do they even want to do these jobs or are the salaries and working with tourists too beneath them.

      • Heather says:

        Your spot on there, any Caymanian wanting to be a dive master would be snapped up quicker then a blink of an eye…its just that they don't want to do it. 

    • Anonymous says:

      Filter candidate pool by those that will (a) show up and (b) know how to swim…anyone left?

  17. Foxtrot Oscar says:

    If someone could just "consult" on the re-zoning of one piece of land it could pay for the programme for three years.

  18. Jonny says:

    I have a friend who is a divemaster and he alone has culled nearly 4000!! in the last year and a half. The situation is made worse for us divers given the fact that government allows fishing in the same places we dive; I have never understood how that is allowed???

    • Solja Crab says:

      Attention Captain Obvious.

      Seeing as you guys have the ability to dive EVERYWHERE, where do you propose we fish?!


      • Jonny says:

        we can only dive where the morring are, you can fish everywhere else, simple really….

      • B.B.L. Brown says:

        Good point, Solja!

      • longtermresident says:

        Technically you are right, a diver can lawfully dive anywhere.

        But I think he was refering to fishing being done near dive moorings. Banning fishing there would leave an awful lot of ocean to fish in.

  19. CaymanFisting says:

    Sign me up….I’m more than willing to head to the Caribbean and cull those bastards

    • Anonymous says:

      Then….Come to the Cayman Islands!  Get a job as a dive master and cull them while you work!  You may even be able to teach a course of how to cull them to other individuals interested!

      Come on down!

      • CaymanFisting says:

        Booking my ticket tonight as long as you can instruct me on thefiner points of culling my friend. I am a frequent visitor and have caught an abundance of what Cayman has to offer….the only regret I can recall is the unfortunate case of crabs I caught from a particular local