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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

Ghost Fishing UK land the prize catch at the Fishing News Awards

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The charity Ghost Fishing UK was stunned to win the Sustainability Award.

The winners were selected by a panel of industry judges and the award recognises innovation and achievement in improving sustainability and environmental responsibility within the UK or Irish fishing industries in 2021.

Nominees must have demonstrated a unique and innovative response to an environmental sustainability issue within the UK or Irish industry, demonstrating that the project has gone above and beyond standard practice, and provided evidence of its impact. The judges look particularly for projects that have influenced a significant change in behaviour and/or that have inspired broader awareness and/or engagement.

Ghost Fishing UK originated in 2015, training voluntary scuba divers to survey and recover lost fishing gear, with the aim to either return it to the fishing industry or recycle it. The charity is run entirely by volunteers and has gone from strength to strength, only last year winning the Best Plastic Campaign at the Plastic Free Awards.

Now, the charity has also been recognised at seemingly the opposite end of the spectrum. This is a unique achievement as trustee Christine Grosart explains;

We have always held the belief that working with the fishing industry is far more productive than being against it, in terms of achieving our goals to reduce and remove lost fishing gear.

The positive response to our fisheries reporting system that we received from both the fishing industry and the marine environment sector, was evidence that working together delivers results.

The feedback we got from the awards evening and the two-day Scottish Skipper Expo where we had an exhibit the following day, was that the fishing industry despises lost fishing gear as much as we do and the fishers here are very rarely at fault. It is costly to them to lose gear and they will make every effort to get it back, but sometimes they can’t. That is where we come in, to try to help. Everyone wins, most of all the environment. You can’t ask for much more.”

Following the awards, Ghost Fishing UK held an exhibit at the Scottish Skipper expo at the new P&J Live exhibition centre in Aberdeen.

This gave us a fantastic opportunity to meet so many people in the fishing industry, all of whom were highly supportive of our work and wanted to help us in any way they could. This has opened so many opportunities for the charity and our wish list which has been on the slow burner for the last 7 years, was exceeded in just 3 days. We came away from the events exhausted, elated, humbled, grateful and most of all, excited.”

Trustee and Operations Officer, Fred Nunn, is in charge of the diving logistics such as arranging boats and organising the divers, who the charity trains in house, to give up their free time to volunteer.

He drove from Cornwall to attend the awards and the exhibition: “What a crazy and amazing few days up in Scotland! It was awesome to meet such a variety of different people throughout the industry, who are all looking at different ways of improving the sustainability and reduction of the environmental impact of the fishing industry.

It was exciting to have so many people from the fishing industry approaching us to find out more about what we do, but also what they could offer. Fishermen came to us with reports and offers of help, using their vessels and other exhibitors tried to find ways that their product or service could assist in our mission.”

  • Ghost Fishing UK uses hard boat charters from Cornwall to Scotland for the diving projects, paying it forward to the diving community.
  • The charity relies on reports of lost fishing gear from the diving and fishing community and to date has received well over 200 reports, culminating on over 150 survey and ghost gear recovery dives, amounting to over 1000 individual dives and diver hours by the volunteer team members.
  • You can find more information at ghostfishing.co.uk
  • If you are a fisher who knows of any lost fishing gear, you can report it to the charity here: ghostfishing.co.uk/fishermans-reporting
  • The charity is heading to Shetland for a week-long project in the summer of 2023. If you would like to support this project, please contact them at: info@ghostfishing.co.uk

Chair of Ghost Fishing UK and professional technical diving instructor Dr Richard Walker was immensely proud of the team’s achievements;

I’ve been a scuba diver since 1991 and have met thousands of divers in that time. I’d be hard pushed to think of one of them that wasn’t concerned about conservation of our marine environment. To be recognised by the fishing industry for our efforts in sustainability is a huge honour for us, and has encouraged our team to work even harder to find, survey and remove lost fishing gear from the seas. The fact that the fishing industry recognises our efforts, and appreciates our stance as a group that wants to work alongside them is one of the highlights of our charity’s history, and we look forward to building the relationship further.

To find out more about Ghost Fishing UK visit their website here.


All images: Ghost Fishing UK

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Marine Life & Conservation

Komodo National Park found to be Manta Hotspot

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Through a collaborative effort between citizen divers, scientists from the Marine Megafauna Foundation (MMF), and Murdoch University, a new study reports a large number of manta rays in the waters of Komodo National Park, Indonesian, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, suggesting the area may hold the key to regional recovery of the threatened species.

Reef mantas (Mobula alfredi), which grow up to 5m, tend to reside and feed in shallow, coastal habitats. They also visit ‘cleaning stations’ on coral reefs to have parasites, or dead skin picked off by small fish. Courtship ‘trains’ are also observed adjacent to cleaning stations. In Komodo National Park, manta rays are present year-round, challenging the famous Komodo dragon as the most sought-after megafauna for visitors.

Scientists teamed up with the dive operator community to source identification photographs of manta rays visiting the parks’ waters and submit them to MantaMatcher.org – a crowdsourced online database for mantas and other rays. Most of the photographs came from just four locations from over 20 commonly visited by tourism boats.

I was amazed by how receptive the local dive community was in helping collect much-needed data on these threatened animals,” said lead author Dr. Elitza Germanov. “With their support, we were able to identify over 1,000 individual manta rays from over 4,000 photographs.

People love manta rays—they are one of the most iconic animals in our oceans. The rise of the number of people engaging in SCUBA diving, snorkeling, and the advent of affordable underwater cameras meant that photos and videos taken by the public during their holidays could be used to quickly and affordably scale data collection,” said MMF co-founder and study co-author Dr. Andrea Marshall.

The photographs’ accompanying time and location data is used to construct sighting histories of individual manta rays, which can then be analyzed with statistical movement models. These models predict the likelihood that manta rays are inhabiting or traveling in between specific sites. The study’s results showed that some manta rays moved around the park and others as far as the Nusa Penida MPA (>450 km to the west), but overall, manta rays showed individual preferences for specific sites within the Park.

I found it very interesting how some manta rays appear to prefer spending their time in some sites more than others, even when sites are 5 km apart, which are short distances for manta rays,” said Dr. Elitza Germanov. “This means that manta rays which prefer sites where fishing activities continue to occur or that are more popular with tourism will endure greater impacts.”

Fishing activities have been prohibited in many coastal areas within Komodo NP since 1984, offering some protection to manta rays prior to the 2014 nationwide protection. However, due to illegal fishing activity and manta ray movements into heavily fished waters, manta rays continue to face a number of threats from fisheries. About 5% of Komodo’s manta rays have permanent injuries that are likely the result of encounters with fishing gear.

The popularity of tourism to these sites grew by 34% during the course of the study. An increase in human activity can negatively impact manta rays and their habitats. In 2019, the Komodo National Park Authority introduced limits on the number of boats and people that visit one of the most famous manta sites.

This study shows that the places where tourists commonly observe manta rays are important for the animals to feed, clean, and mate. This means that the Komodo National Park should create measures to limit the disturbance at these sites,” said Mr. Ande Kefi, an employee of the Komodo National Park involved with this study. “I hope that this study will encourage tourism operators to understand the need for the regulations already imposed and increase compliance.”

Despite Indonesia’s history with intensive manta ray fisheries, Komodo National Park still retains large manta ray aggregations that with careful ongoing management and threat reduction will benefit regional manta ray populations. The study highlights that marine protected areas that are large enough to host important manta ray habitats are a beneficial tool for manta ray conservation.

For more information about MMF visit their website here.

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