“We watched them coming through the Bahamas, which they just devastated,” she says. “They lay 25,000 eggs every four days and have no predators here. They will literally eat everything on the reef.”
I am sitting on a shady terrace in the Cayman Islands, watching the sun ripple off the Caribbean and sipping a fruit punch, while Nancy Easterbrook tells me about the threat to local coral reefs from the invasive lionfish. She is a dynamic bundle of energy who, with her husband, runs local diving company Divetech and their livelihood depends on preserving some of the best diving in the Caribbean.
Native to Asia, it is thought the colorful fish were first exported to the US for display in home aquariums but were freed into the wild when they became too big. Starting from only eight females, according to genetic studies, red lionfish (Pterois volitans) have spread rapidly down the eastern seaboard since their release in Florida during the mid-1980s.
“We saw the first ones at Little Cayman in 2008 but the water sport dive operators have been very aggressive in combating them,” says Nancy. “We have very, very strong conservation laws in Cayman preventing anyone taking anything from the sea but we had that law amended for lionfish. The Department of the Environment has licensed the dive operators to have spears. Spear guns are banned here but these ones do not shoot, they stab. Lionfish are quite docile, if you get them the first time.”
Nancy explains that the lionfish spines contain neurotoxins which cause severe pain, swelling and rash in humans. But the fish are venomous, not poisonous, and make good eating. “The groupers and eels know they are tasty and they know there are a lot of them – they just can’t catch them yet,” she says.
“We hope evolution will take care of that. In the meantime, their only predators are human. We have managed to keep the dive sites relatively clean but if you go out further you will see them. We are catching lots but it’s non-stop and forever. We will not eliminate lionfish, unless they eliminate them on the eastern seaboard of the US, but we do hope to manage the population with constant effort.”
A few days later, diving off Little Cayman, I see my first lionfish hovering over a reef. Its long, trailing spines and red body with sinuous white stripes are unmistakable but it presents an incongruous appearance, solitary and alien in its marked difference from the other reef fish darting around. During the rest of my time in the islands, I spot no other, so the first battles in what will certainly be a long war are certainly having an effect.
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