Sandals guests take on fight against invasive lionfish Sandals guests take on fight against invasive lionfish

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

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If you're a guest at any of the Sandals or Beaches resorts in the Caribbean, you could get the chance to participate in guided dives to hunt and kill lionfish, the non-native predator of juvenile fish.

It is among a string of strategies Sandals Foundation is using to not only help bring awareness to the threat of the species, but to control its population as well, since it reproduces at an alarming rate and has no known predators in the warm waters of the Caribbean Sea.

As environmental officer at Sandals Foundation Johnathan Hernould explains that, guests staying at the all-inclusive resorts can sign up to be part of the weekly dives to hunt lionfish.

“We have to do our part in protecting the biodiversity of our marine environment as the lionfish is essentially very destructive to the underwater ecosystem. They devour 30 times their stomach volume of juvenile fish a day and one female spawns around two million eggs a year. They have no known predators and move from reef to reef, clearing each of juvenile fish which we cannot allow,” Hernould says.

He said that the programme is the latest among several it has either introduced or in which it has participated, including assisting with scientific research and training undertaken by marine biologist at the University of the West Indies Dr Dayne Buddo.

“We have also hosted a number of workshops with Dr Buddo across the region to teach dive operators, fishermen and government officials how to monitor lionfish and control the populations. As hunting is the only way of reducing their population, we've also supported tournaments for local fishermen to hunt and kill lionfish,” Hernould said.

Earlier this month, Utah resident Mathew Flitton went on his first lionfish-hunting dive at Sandals Whitehouse.

“I heard about them (lionfish) when I was vacationing in Riviera Maya (Mexico) and we saw some there but we didn't aggressively go after them, we only saw them. The dive guides explained to us that they were an invasive species but there was not much we could do about it but I really like this approach of going after them with spear guns,” Flitton said.

Flitton, who said he has been diving since 1999, said though he had not interacted with lionfish before the dive, he was not nervous since he was diving with experts.

The lionfish hunting dives require three-member teams with a spotter who looks for the lionfish and points them out to the hunter who, using a pole spear, spears the lionfish before placing it into a zookeeper being carried by the third team member.

While the lionfish has venomous spines, scientists say it is safe to eat once they are removed.

Flitton said he had never eaten the fish but was looking forward to doing so before leaving the resort.

“I have never eaten lionfish before but I would definitely want to try it. I think this is a great programme to cut back on the invasive species because they are obviously doing damage to the coral reefs and ecology,” he said.

The Jamaican Government, through the agriculture and fisheries ministry, National Environment and Planning Agency and others, also encourages the consumption of lionfish.

Preparation for the Sandals dives involve classroom theory, and expert divers receive an additional Professional Association of Diving Instructors certification which will allow them to hunt lionfish elsewhere.

The foundation reported that part proceeds from the dives goes towards financing its marine conservation projects.

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