The invasive Indo-Pacific predator the lionfish has the potential to damage our reef ecosystem as it has done in the Caribbean. The newly-formed Ocean Support Foundation has set out a plan to harvest them on a mass scale in the hope of controlling their numbers and encouraging a commmercial fishery. <em>*Photo by Chris Burville</em>
The invasive Indo-Pacific predator the lionfish has the potential to damage our reef ecosystem as it has done in the Caribbean. The newly-formed Ocean Support Foundation has set out a plan to harvest them on a mass scale in the hope of controlling their numbers and encouraging a commmercial fishery. *Photo by Chris Burville

The current invasion of lionfish in Bermuda could devastate our inshore fish populations and, in turn, our world class reef systems.

Similar declines have occurred in the Bahamas and other countries where the Indo-Pacific predators have come to feast. Environmental bodies including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predict that the Bahamas’ fish populations will be damaged beyond repair within five to ten years as a result of invasive lionfish. Conservationists believe that Bermuda is likely to face the same fate unless a major plan is put into practice. Environmental organization the Ocean Support Foundation, with the financial backing of sponsors, is on a combat mission to rid as many of the fish from our waters as is possible.

WEDNESDAY, JULY 27: An underwater war is being waged and Bermuda is about to get tactical.

The invasion of Indo-Pacific lionfish is threatening to destroy our reef ecosystems and commercial fisheries. Conservationists believe the impact will be worse than the fish pots that all but decimated our fish population until they were banned in 1990.

The problem looks set to grow as these ambush predators, armed with a most voracious and indiscriminate appetite, feast on our small and juvenile reef fish. With no known natural predators in the Atlantic and production of up to 30,000 eggs in a month cycle, their numbers have been exploding in the Bahamas, north Caribbean countries and along the east coast of America.

Coral reef ecology expert Dr Mark Hixon of Oregon State University said that lionfish have the potential to become “the most disastrous marine invasion in history by drastically reducing the abundance of coral reef fishes and leaving behind a devastated ecosystem”.

Following intensive research by the Conservation Services’ Lionfish Invasion Project founder Chris Flook, an effort is being initiated by the newly-formed organization The Ocean Support Foundation to harvest the lionfish here in large numbers.

Commercially viable

Using lobster traps they plan to make them a commercially viable fish that will be sold in our restaurants and supermarkets. While their spines are venomous, once removed the lionfish’s flesh is a healthy, sustainable alternative to our black grouper (rockfish).

Triangle Diving owner Graham Maddox is president of the Ocean Support Foundation which is currently awaiting charitable status. He said: “We can’t let it become too late and wish we did it ten years ago. I’ve lived through the fish pot days — when I was a commercial diver they would drag me for a half a mile back and forth looking for these large anchors and I counted maybe five fish on the bottom of the ocean — that’s how bad it got.

“But these are worse than fish pots because they exponentially are growing all the time. We could wipe out our fish stocks if we don’t get on to this now.

“We are working on a baseline study with Chris Flook to find out what traps are working best with minimal by catch. We could have, say, 150 to 200 traps around the island and they will be serviced every single day and we are going to have to get private sponsorship to be able to do it.”

The Marine Resources section of the Department of Environmental Protection has included the goal of developing a new fishery targeting lionfish in its Strategy for the Sustainable Use of Bermuda’s Living Marine Resources released in April last year.

The department amended regulations in 2010 to allow lobster fishermen to sell the lionfish being caught as by catch in their traps. The department also says it is also looking to experiment with a modified lobster trap to actively target lionfish.

Asked whether government believed the invasion posed a significant threat to our reef life Tammy Trott, senior marine resources officer for Environmental Protection said: “The lionfish… does not have any known predators in the Atlantic Ocean so the species could potentially pose a problem for native fish stocks. However, the extent of this threat is not yet known.”

Chris Flook of the Department of Conservation Services began researching lionfish in 2000 when the first one was reported in Bermuda. He has been researching the species’ impact overseas, methods of catching them and sharing data and samples with organizations such as National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

He said at a recent talk at the Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute: “Hopefully lionfish will become the most marketed fish rather than groupers (rockfish) and other things that aren’t doing as well.

Create a demand

“One way the public can help the problem is to create a demand for lionfish in the restaurants and in the supermarkets. Tell them you want to see it on the menu and on the shelves.”

The spiny predators were first reported in the Atlantic in the 1990s mainly by way of hurricanes and release into the ocean from home aquariums. They feast on important commercial fish such as snappers, groupers and hind as well as reef fish such as parrot fish which are crucial to the health of our corals.

Our reefs are not just beauty spots that divers and snorkellers the world over come to appreciate, they are the nursery grounds our marine life.

If the lionfish prevails as it has done in the Bahamas, our reefs could end up as barren rock formations uninhabitable for our marine life.

The Ocean Support Foundation is looking for help and sponsorship to fund the project with costs such as fuel, employment and promotion.

Anyone interested in helping or donating should call the Ocean Support Foundation on: 705-3536 or email foundation@oceansupport.org