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Licensed to Cull

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Over the past few years lionfish have been dominating the news headlines. In fact they are probably the most talked about marine species in the Caribbean. There are even ‘wanted’ posters on display in many dive centres. But these posters are not advertising underwater photography or promoting marine life; they are basically ‘kill on sight’ orders.

Stu 12In the Red Sea lionfish (Pterois volitans) are extremely popular with divers. Their bold stripy colours and large venomous spines look great in photographs and they are fascinating to watch, especially when hunting in packs. But the Atlantic Ocean is not their home territory and what’s deemed as an attraction on one continent is seriously threatening the very existence of another.

During a recent trip to the Cayman Islands I spoke with Flower Moye, a researcher for the CCMI (Central Caribbean Marine Institute) based on Little Cayman. She said that the most likely theory is the whole disaster had been caused by a freak accident. Flower said the Caribbean ‘strain’ had probably been released by aquariums somewhere near Miami. They are now sweeping from island to island heading due south. Some have even been reported as far away as Belize. Flower said “we are not sure where they are or where they are going”. She thinks the present crisis could have been caused by as little as 6 original lionfish. She also thought they were dealing with 2 separate species.

Flower said that the Caymans are now on a lionfish high alert. The ‘hardcore scramble’ started in 2007. Two researchers from Oregon State University were taken on to solely study lionfish characteristics. They are checking sizes, weights and DNA strings to see where they originated from. Studies have shown that the Caribbean lionfish are actually growing in size. They have already exceeded their normal length by a massive 15cm and are still getting bigger. This invasive species has no natural enemies so are just decimating one reef after another. Flower said “no one was prepared or expected such an aggressive full on attack”.

Stu 9Stu 8The alien invasion has now reached critical levels and is threatening the whole eco-system. Lionfish are just eating their way through entire cleaning stations. Flower said a dissected specimen had more than 32 fish in its stomach. The local fish population just don’t know how to react. The voracious predator is herding up the unsuspecting fish using their spines and then it’s a full on feeding frenzy. Divers recorded one individual eating 20 juveniles in 30 minutes. Their main targets are damsels and cardinals but every species is under threat. Flower said that the survival rate for reef inhabitants has reduced by a staggering 80 percent. This has a huge knock on effect. The loss of grazers like parrotfish means seaweeds and algae can thrive. This will eventually overwhelm the coral reefs.

Grand Cayman Authorities have realised the seriousness of the problem and are responding rapidly. It’s basically a case of exterminate or be exterminated. They have given divers the authorisation to actively seek out and destroy as many lionfish as possible. But before being issued with a license to cull they have to first sit through an hour long Powerpoint presentation. This explains the reasons behind the drastic measures, how to catch them (without getting stung) and what to do with them afterwards. Flower said the most humane way of killing them is to put them in the freezer so that they ‘go to sleep’ and then bury them on land or eat them.

Some divers are even grilling lionfish steaks on the barbecue but obviously the poisonous spines have to be cut off with scissors before the fleshy parts can be sliced up into pieces. Gladys, the owner of Pirates Point on Little Cayman, had prepared some lionfish Sushi for me. I tried a few pieces and although it had a strange twangy taste, it wasn’t at all offensive or inedible. Adding some Wasabi was all it took to spice up the flavour and make it palatable. At Cobalt Coast resort they invited me to a lionfish cook out where I tried all sorts of dishes from deep fried goujons to an extremely tasty bouillabaisse. At least lionfish was proving good to eat!

Stu 6

Dive guides are even trying to ‘train’ the local Nassau grouper population to eat the lionfish. Laura, an Instructor working at the Little Cayman Beach resort, dropped a freshly caught lionfish in front of a grouper and after a few seconds of deliberation it decided to take a bite. But unless the lionfish are actually placed in front of them they don’t seem to be interested. It’s just not seen as a natural food source.

Stu 13I went for a quick dive with Laura hunting for lionfish and within 10 minutes we managed to find one under a coral mount. Laura scooped the lionfish into a plastic bag and then put it into an ice box back on board the boat. All sightings are reported to the D.O.E. so they can get a good idea where they are and in what numbers. But lionfish are proving a tough species to eradicate. They adapt very quickly. At one dive site I searched below 40 metres and found a number of big 20 – 30cm lionfish lurking underneath ledges all along the wall. I’m sure they had cottoned on that recreational divers don’t usually go this deep so there was less likelihood of being caught.

The licenses are proper looking ID cards complete with a head and shoulders photograph of the holder. The culling is being promoted as a form of ‘pest control’. But numbers are still growing at an incredible rate. Lionfish can release up to 30,000 eggs a month which equates to more than 2,000,000 eggs every year. Flower said that when they grow to a size of 10cm they are ready to spawn and from then on will keep spawning every 4 days for the rest of their lives! At present there seems to be very little information available on mating habits etc. The only way of finding out the sex of each individual fish is to dissect it. Flower estimates that numbers around Little Cayman are in the high hundreds but this is considered to be a very conservative estimation. In 2008 a researcher caught a total of 197 Lionfish in a small defined area.

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At present there is no long term solution to the Lionfish catastrophe. These underwater terminators are not afraid of anything and literally can’t be stopped. In other parts of the world reef fish have learnt to avoid them and there are more natural predators like groupers or stonefish keeping population levels in check. Unfortunately Caribbean grouper numbers have fallen dramatically due to overfishing. This situation requires a more drastic approach but introducing another ‘alien’ species specifically to kill the lionfish is not seen as a good idea. Flower said “Having 2 invasives will not solve the problem and could in fact just make the situation a whole lot worse”. And so the war continues….

 

Stuart has spent the past 26 years taking pictures and writing stories for diving magazines and other publications. In fact, this equates to more than a year of his life spent underwater. There have been plenty of exciting moments from close encounters with crocodiles and sharks to exploration of deep wrecks and more recently rebreathers. He lives in Poole, Dorset and is very much an advocate of UK diving.

Marine Life & Conservation Blogs

Sperm Whales

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A guest blog from Isobel Fairbairn

Moby Dick’s own antagonist, Sperm Whales (Physeter macrocephalus) are one of the oceans most elusive creatures.

These creatures must be hoarding more knowledge than the board of NASA, as they carry one of the largest brains on earth all bundled up inside one of the largest, heaviest heads! It is also thought that alongside these brains, carried around in the head is Spermaceti, once thought to be a stream of sperm it is now assumed to be a liquid that helps with buoyancy.

Now all this odd sounding liquid would be needed for buoyancy as sperm whales spend a lot of their time diving; although they can weigh between 35-45 tonnes, they can dive over 7000 feet. While down, they can hold their breath for up to 90 minutes; I’ve only just started out my scuba diving training but the idea of being under water for that long is a marvel to me…and I’m thinking with our heavy kit, imagine carrying their head on your shoulders! I guess sperm whales also don’t need to learn hand signals while diving either, aside from the fact they have wonderful methods of communication, “O.K?” hand signals may be quite hard sans fingers.

I think sperm whales diving ability makes them one of my favourite creatures, on top of that, have you ever seen a sperm whale sleep? Eerily haunting. A seemingly magnificent sighting. Something I could only dream of seeing up close. The notion that these giant-like creatures can simply stop and hang like icicles is almost unbelievable.

It’s not only their diving abilities that makes sperm whales stand out so much in my eyes, but also their incredible ability to communicate. Now maybe this Is because I was talking before I could walk and, as my mother says, haven’t stopped since, but these whales have a broad, potentially in-depth “language” that they, similarly to us, learn from their parents.

Unlike many mammals the sperm whales form of communication stretches beyond just primal needs and urges. Sperm whales seem to interact with one another in many ways; body language combined with vocalisation, researchers and journalists alike have seen these whales act like tight knit friends or family, with closeness and familiarity between them uncanny to our own. Brothers have been seen almost conversing, playing around together for extended periods of time, young calves have been seen being scolded by parental figures.

Not only does their communication give us an insight into their complex nature, but the way they spend their lives does. The calves’ tendencies to stay with the mother throughout, staying in pods with the females and the males tendencies to leave the pod around 4 years old but then often going and starting their own family eventually, shows us even deeper into their nature.

Their emotional depth, the relationship they have with others, their own family and even how they can adapt their tones to interact with strangers is enlightening. I’m sure there’s a lot we can learn from sperm whales, and I hope we never stop trying to learn from them or about them.

These mere interactions give us an insight into the incredible beings that are sperm whales, and the intricate lives they lead. The emotional depth we’ve already seen whales express over the years gives me an intense feeling of connection to our world, the oceans and the incredible creatures that inhabit them. That we have an honour to share the earth with these animals alone is one thing, that they allow us even a small view into their world is another.


Isobel Fairbairn is a 22 year old first year Marine Biology student at the university of Salford with a passion for both writing and marine life. “I loves to share things that I learn along my journey and that’s when I decided I wanted to take my career towards writing, I’ve always wanted to write but when my two passions collided I knew I had to go in this direction.”
She lives in Manchester. Her favourite fish is the Chimera Shark and she am currently undergoing her diving training with BSAC with the university’s diving society “I am equal parts terrified and excited.”
Instagram: @ihf.writing
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Marine Life & Conservation

Jeff chats to… Joanna Ruxton MBE, filmmaker and conservationist, about her life and work (Watch Video)

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“If you really care about our oceans and ultimately the planet on which we all live then do listen to what Jo Ruxton has to say about how we need to act now if we are to stop and reverse this destructive global trend we have created for ourselves and all other life.”

Jeff Goodman

In this exclusive Zoom interview, Jeff Goodman, Scubaverse Editor-at-Large, chats to Joanna Ruxton MBE, film maker and conservationist, about her life and work, ‘A Plastic Ocean’ (Netflix) and her new project Ocean Generation.

Jo graduated from London University with a degree in Marine Science.  She started the first marine programme for WWF in Hong Kong, where she raised her family, and was a key advocate for the establishment of the first marine parks there.

She returned to live in the UK and was a Producer at the BBC Natural History Unit and a lead member of the BBC’s diving team, producing and directing underwater sequences since the first days of filming on Blue Planet.

Disappointed in the lack of conservation messages in BBC films, she left in 2008 to work independently to produce, A Plastic Ocean, (Netflix).  She founded the charity, Ocean Generation (formerly Plastic Oceans).

She lives in Cornwall close to her daughters and their families and when not diving on location she enjoys cold-water sea swimming, whatever the season.  Jo was awarded an MBE in the 2022 New Year’s Honours for services to marine conservation.

About Ocean Generation | UK Charity No. 1139843

Ocean Generation is an inclusive global movement that exists to restore a sustainable relationship between humanity and the Ocean.

Founded in 2009, the charity was established initially to support the production and message of our award-winning documentary feature, ‘A Plastic Ocean’, named by Sir David Attenborough as “one of the most important films of our time” and ignited mass public awareness about the impact of plastic on our Ocean.

No ordinary NGO, Ocean Generation combines the disruptive energy of a youth collective with years of experience in storytelling through science and film.

Find out more at www.oceangeneration.org


Rather listen to a podcast? Listen to the audio HERE on the new Scubaverse podcast channel at Anchor FM.

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