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Marine Life & Conservation

The Lionfish Kings of Grand Cayman’s East End

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“Lionfish are beautiful, resilient and strong – a cool fish – but they are deadly to our reefs and if we don’t stop them something bad is going to happen,” says Matt Russell, a divemaster/instructor at Ocean Frontiers who has watched the invasion with deep concern for the marine environment. Russell is a dedicated, educated and skilled warrior in the fight against the predatory Lionfish, consistently culling large numbers on dives – a record 56 fish during a 2-tank dive. He’s also a member of the very exclusive “30 Club” whose members have removed 30 or more Lionfish on a single dive. Matt also teaches customers how to safely and humanely remove the invasive species from the reefs.

Cayman 2“The hunt was wickedly fun at first, but now I feel an obligation to get as many people involved as I can,” he says. Matt and his co-workers follow the lead set by their boss Steve Broadbelt (also a member of the 30 Club) who is out there hunting and spearing as many Lionfish as he can on company culls.  “We’re pretty competitive! Steve ‘gets it’ and understands that we need to keep the pressure on.”

This attitude and the resulting teamwork is why Ocean Frontiers is winning the local battle against invasive Lionfish prowling the reefs at East End, if not the broader war against the predator.  Broadbelt and his team aggressively press on, culling as many predators as they can, and encouraging locals and customers to get involved in the fight. In March they crossed an important thresh hold – they have removed 10,000 Lionfish from East End reefs since they began culling three years ago.

Also this month their best customer for the fish, Chef Ron Hargrave, who operates Tukka at East End and Eagle Ray’s Dive Bar & Grill at Compass Point Resort, calculates that he has purchased 6000 pounds of Lionfish at a cost of $25,000. This partnership between Broadbelt and Hargrave is an example of how the community can help fight the Lionfish invasion, and it exemplifies the hope behind the mantra being repeated across the Caribbean: to beat them eat them.

Culling invasive Lionfish is a day in, day out challenge, and while eradicating them completely from Cayman’s reefs is unlikely, Ocean Frontiers is hoping to keep the predator population manageable at East End dive sites. Once a week, Ocean Frontiers runs a one-tank afternoon cull, and customers are asked to help by being Lionfish spotters for trained cullers. This helps keep the Lionfish population low on regular dive sites, but a more aggressive approach is needed for other areas of the reef not regularly dived. Ocean Frontiers also offers an all-day 3-tank cull once a month for Cayman residents who are licensed to use spears and have their own DoE approved spears. The dive operation also offers a culling class, taught by Matt Russell, for customers interested in being trained and licensed to spear Lionfish.

Cayman 3“These trips target the hard to reach areas that are too far to get to on a typical half day trip,” says Broadbelt.  “We’ve also developed what we call ‘parachute drop culling’ where we split the residents into three teams and drop them off along the reef sequentially the estimated distance apart that they are expected to cover. This enables us to cull over 1 mile of linear reef at a time and has resulted in many top scores. This method can only be used in the right conditions with advanced divers that we are comfortable with… I would class it as an extreme dive, but worth the results.”

The numbers tell the story: to date Ocean Frontiers has culled a total of 10,202 Lionfish; 1008 divers have participated in culling dives; the most fish ever culled in one day is 320; the most culled by a single diver in one dive is 39; the longest Lionfish caught is approximately 13 inches measured from nose to base of tail; the smallest is about 2 inches. Everything is carefully documented and the results are reported to the Department of Environment where a Lionfish database is kept.

Chef Ron Hargrave takes all the Lionfish being harvested at East End, no matter the size, and adds them to his menu. He says most of their customers are aware of the issue and support the cause by ordering at least one Lionfish dish – among the most popular are the famous Lionfish Tacos served at Eagle Ray’s Dive Bar & Grill.

Cayman 4“Customers love it! And why not… Its delicate, flakey, white meat is very mild and extremely tasty,” he says, adding that demand is going up all the time.

“The Lionfish tacos at Eagle Ray’s are probably the best I’ve ever had and they are on the menu 100% of the time,” says Matt Russell who often recommends them. “I’ll ask customers ‘did you try those fish tacos? I caught them!’”

Steve Broadbelt says licensed local cullers joined the fight once they understood the threat posed by the Lionfish, and they continue to be involved.

“Divers do not like harming or killing (culling) marine life, but we have to be smarter than our emotions and understand the damage the Lionfish are doing and the importance of our environmental work,” he says. “We employ some of our own techniques to make sure the Lionfish are terminated as quickly and humanely as possible. There is no reason to make them suffer – they are just not welcome here.”

“You have to take care of the things you love and there are few things I love more than Cayman’s reef life,” says local customer Mark Rovner, a licensed spearer. “At first I was apprehensive about killing fish, but once you understand the horrific damage these invasives can do, you realize there’s no choice. And if not me, who?

Broadbelt says getting Ocean Frontiers customers involved in culling is easy when they become aware of the threat Lionfish pose and sometimes a little competition keeps the hunt interesting.

Cayman 5“We make the culling trips fun and competitive by encouraging a little rivalry and team spirit,” he says. “Most divers don’t need motivation. They care about the environment and there is always this desire to do a good thing and help with the problem. Some of them just love it and can’t get enough.”

Is regular culling it working? Broadbelt says the data they’ve collected and submitted to the Department of Environment indicates that Lionfish counts and sizes are being reduced. Customers are also seeing fewer of them during dives on return trips.

“When I started, the lionfish populated almost every dive site. Now it is a surprise to see a lionfish,” agrees regular customer John Sharp who has participated in culling dives.

“Yes culling is making a difference, but it is like a leaking boat,” says Steve Broadbelt. “Every time we bail out some water… more just keeps coming back in. We can keep bailing and bailing, but we have to find a better long term solution.”

For more information on Ocean Frontiers, visit www.oceanfrontiers.com.

Marine Life & Conservation

Stranded dolphin rescued from muddy inlet

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dolphin

At around 11:40 on Friday 16 February, a lone common dolphin was reported to British Divers Marine Life Rescue circling in the shallows in an inlet at Place, near Portscatho, in Cornwall. A couple of volunteer Marine Mammal Medics were sent down initially to monitor the animal in hope it would be able to get away by itself, and further assess the situation.

After an hour and a half or so of observation, the risk of stranding increased significantly as the tide went out as the inlet is very shallow, muddy and almost completely dries out over low tide. Therefore, a larger response team was dispatched with more equipment in preparation for a stranding. Indeed, the animal did soon strand in the mud and fell onto its side, submerging the blowhole. Luckily the team were on hand to help get it upright again quickly, then bring it ashore for a health assessment and to begin providing first aid. No obvious injuries could be found and it measured 2.03m, later confirmed as female.

dolphin

The team were soon joined by two vets, who were able to confirm the animal to be in moderate nutritional condition and appeared otherwise okay following a more detailed health check, and so was suitable for the team to attempt to refloat. However, it was not possible to refloat it safely in the inlet due to the nature of the geography, substrate and tide there it seemed the most likely reason this dolphin had stranded was due to getting disoriented in this location, and would struggle to get out again. Luckily a local resident had his boat tender moored nearby and was happy to use it a transport craft to take the dolphin out to deeper water.

dolphin

With help, the boat was slid across the mud and launched near the mouth of the inlet. A surfboard was placed on one side with a soft mat on top for the dolphin to lie comfortably on during the journey. When ready, the dolphin was carried across in a tarpaulin, transferred to a mesh stretcher and loaded on board with a team of four Medics including a vet.

The boat then carefully made its way out to the mouth of the Percuil River, facing into Carrick Roads and close to open sea, which was the most ideal site for release where the chance of returning and re-dolphinstranding was lower. The dolphin was carefully hauled overboard in the stretcher and held alongside briefly, though as she started kicking strongly almost straight away it was hard to keep hold and so she was released quickly. The boat retreated and the team observed her circling in the middle of the channel until she was lost from sight. The team returned to the inlet before darkness fell.

dolphin

The area will be monitored over the weekend for re-sightings or re-strandings, but it is hoped that she will recover successfully and continue back out to sea. In the meantime BDMLR would like to thank the volunteer team, local residents and members of the public for all their efforts and support throughout this incident.

British Divers Marine Life Rescue is an international marine animal rescue organisation based in the UK and is a registered charity.  The aims of the organisation are to provide a rescue service for marine wildlife, to support existing rehabilitation centres and to develop new methods of rescue, treatment, transport and care.  Website www.bdmlr.org.uk.

Photos: Dan Jarvis

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Marine Life & Conservation

Mother of Corals Announces Ambassador Program

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Mother of Corals, a US-based non-profit organization that teaches communities worldwide to rebuild coral reefs, is launching a new Ambassador Program.

Unlock the secrets of coral restoration and become an advocate for marine conservation. This comprehensive program is designed for individuals passionate about protecting our oceans and eager to make a tangible impact on coral reef ecosystems. Participants will delve into the science, techniques, and community engagement aspects of coral restoration, gaining the base knowledge and skills necessary to contribute actively to reef rehabilitation efforts.

Join Mother of Corals in beautiful Bocas del Toro, Panama to learn about coral restoration projects from start to finish. This course is designed for students, environmentalists, divers, soon-to-be-divers and anyone seeking to become a catalyst for positive change in coral reef conservation. Join Mother of Corals on a transformative journey to become a Mother of Corals Ambassador and contribute to the preservation of one of Earth’s most vital ecosystems.

Sessions begin in April 2024! For more information, contact Mother of Corals via their website.

Photo: Avalon.Red

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Experience the Red Sea in May with Bella Eriny Liveaboard! As the weather warms up, there’s no better time to dive into the crystal clear waters of the Red Sea. Join us on Bella Eriny, your premier choice for Red Sea liveaboards, this May for an unforgettable underwater adventure. Explore vibrant marine life and stunning coral reefs Enjoy comfortable accommodation in our spacious cabins Savor delicious meals prepared by our onboard chef Benefit from the expertise of our professional dive guides Visit our website for more information and to secure your spot: www.scubatravel.com/BellaEriny or call 01483 411590 More Less

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