Since it was first spotted in the waters around the Virgin Islands in 2008, the voracious lionfish has done more to galvanize marine environmentalists than probably any other single force.
The control of the fish was a primary motivation for founding the non-profit organization C.O.R.E., or Caribbean Oceanic Restoration and Education Foundation, in 2009. While the group has a broader mission, it continues to concentrate much of its work on the lionfish.
“It is absolutely our No. 1 program,” said Kitty Edwards, chief of administration.
The group also sponsors numerous land and beach clean-ups and participates in public forums and environmental activities. In partnership with the Sunrise Leadership Foundation, it runs the VI Sea program, training interested high school students to become environmental ambassadors in their schools and in the community. And it promotes education about conservation.
The lionfish provides a perfect lesson in the interconnections of ecology and the fragile balances in marine environments. It’s a case in point that educators would rather not have, however, in the face of well-founded fears that the species may decimate other marine life and could ultimately destroy coral reefs.
Native to the Indo-Pacific region, the lionfish takes its name from the highly venomous spines that surround it rather like a lion’s mane. It was discovered off the Florida coast in 1992. Exactly how it got there is not certain, but the theory is that it was introduced by humans. It has been migrating southward ever since, with no predators to slow it down. It eats a wide variety of fish, including ones up to half its size. A single female can lay up to two million eggs a year, and can live as long as 15 years.
A 2013 story in the Christian Science Monitor quotes experts who reported that at least 40 species of fish in the Atlantic have declined in population since the appearance of the lionfish. One species at risk is the colorful parrotfish. The parrotfish eats algae that grow on reefs and which, left unchecked, could smother reef systems.
The hope is that eventually nature will work this out; larger marine animals will figure out how to turn lionfish into prey and/or some sea life will take a liking to the eggs, so a balance will be restored. In the meantime, the only predator bothering lionfish in the Atlantic and the Caribbean is man.
Working with other non-profits, with government agencies and with local scuba businesses, CORE sponsors lionfish hunts. It also responds to reports of sightings, sending divers to the area and either killing the fish or capturing them for research.
There was some hope last year that such efforts were starting to pay off, but it’s very difficult to know just how widespread the problem is. So far, the data is anecdotal.
For instance, at one location, known as the “lion’s den” CORE has captured or killed about 200 lionfish on each visit, Edwards said. But visits are few because it’s a remote dive spot two hours from shore and the water has to be very calm in order to make the trip.
In 2014, a single responder on St. Croix removed 1,300 lionfish. She estimated there were sightings of at least 5,000 “and that’s just what’s reported. We only know what people tell us.”
Besides the live sightings, “We know fishermen pull up traps with hundreds of them” inside.
“Culling works,” Edwards said, but it has to be continuous, or the lionfish will rebound.
Early on in the battle against the invader, some divers tried to train eels or sharks to eat lionfish, by offering the large predators samples of freshly speared specimens.
“It was a terrible idea,” Edwards said. Sharks began shadowing divers, waiting for them to kill lionfish, but they haven’t started to hunt them on their own. “Way down the line, will they figure out that they’re a food source? We hope so.”
There are many other threats to corals and to marine life in general. One that Edwards has taken on with gusto is pollution from runoff.
“Trash comes from everywhere” and eventually makes it way downhill to the sea, she said. “It’s astounding” how much trash litters St. Thomas. On her regular exercise walk from Frenchtown to the Long Bay pump house, a distance of about a mile, Edwards said she often fills multiple trash bags with what she finds on the roadside.
“The people who throw the trash are oblivious to its effect” on their surroundings, she said. “So many people are focused on V.I. pride, but they never make the connection to the land.”
That’s why CORE works with young people, to make them aware and to enlist them in the effort, she said.
Edwards said her concern for preservation came naturally. Her father, Don Edwards, was president of the Friends of Hull Bay association and used to organize beach and park clean-ups. Her boyfriend, Jason Quetel, is a professional diver and is chief of field operations for CORE.
“Jason and I were both born and raised here,” she said, explaining their interest in preservation. “I can’t imagine not being involved … It just makes sense.”
More information is available online at www.corevi.org.