An edited version of this article was published in the Trinidad Express newspaper, Wed 9th Oct 2013
The Trinidad and Tobago Government has taken the bold step of beginning to address wildlife hunting. The Honourable Minister Ganga Singh has instituted a 2 year hunting ban that has inspired heated reactions. There are strong opinions on both sides. Whether you are for or against the ban, there is no question that our small twin island is changing rapidly and it’s not all for the best. Many Hunters especially in southern areas and Tobago have complained even prior to the ban that their catch is diminishing both in size (smaller animals) and number (fewer animals). We have heard various hunters over the years complain that ‘outside’ hunters are moving into their areas. Hunting spots are becoming increasingly crowded. Longer hours, more dogs and increased effort are required to catch a dwindling supply of game. Change is hard for all. It’s hard to admit that though our families, including mine, have been hunting for what seems like forever, it may not be sustainable. It’s hard to see the forest when you are in the trees.
As it stands, terrestrial hunting is now banned. However, in a twist of conservation fate, there is a call for responsible hunters in a different environment, under the sea. Here, hunters can play a critical role in helping to control a disaster occurring just under our waves. There is a need for people who are passionate about our coral reefs and fisheries to assist in the control of a non-native species, the Lionfish. The call has been issued for a new breed of hunter, lionfish hunters.
Lionfish - Photo: J. Alemu
Why is the Lionfish a problem?
Our reefs and coastal fisheries are under threat on many fronts. They face increasing pollution, overfishing, trawling, coral bleaching and disease and now the arrival of this new predator, the lionfish. While diving in Tobago with Derek Chung of Undersea Divers in February 2012, my husband and I had the dubious honour of making the first confirmed sighting of the lionfish in Tobago. It was a beautiful yet chilling sight. It represented the completion of an invasion loop of the Caribbean of a fish that does not belong in our waters.
Lionfish are a carnivorous reef-associated fish native to the waters of the Indo-Pacific. In our waters, they are an extremely effective invasive species. Why? So far, very few of our native fish species have shown any interest in eating them. The few that have are species, like the Nassau Grouper, that we have effectively fished out. Also, they multiply faster than many other species and can live in a wide range of conditions (deep or shallow water, varying water quality, and different environments) making them highly adaptable. Finally, they can eat anything that will fit in their mouth; a bit like a Trini.
This adds up to a massive train wreck happening under our waters right now. The lionfish is a voracious predator that feeds on juveniles of commercially important fish species as well as fish species, such as grazers and cleaners that maintain the health of our reef ecosystems. To top it off, their spines are venomous, not just to other fish, but to people as well. Imagine coming to Tobago and being faced with a shortage of fish.
In response, an inter-agency committee (including the Tobago House of Assembly, the EMA, Fisheries and others) coordinated by efforts of the Institute of Marine Affairs (IMA) are collaborating to develop a Lionfish National Management Response Plan, which includes public awareness programmes. Additionally, the IMA has embarked on a series of lionfish awareness and capture workshops. This is one method that has met with some success on other Caribbean islands. Under the guidance of IMA’s Research Officer, Jahson Alemu and his team, participants learn why the lionfish is a threat, how to identify the lionfish, proper tools to use, capture techniques and first aid techniques in treating envenomation and other useful information. And here’s the good news, when properly prepared, they apparently taste quite good. Lionfish and bake anyone?
Hunting a real predator
Hunting a lionfish is not for the faint of heart. This is not hunting by letting a dozen or so hounds chase an agouti ‘till it is exhausted or cornered, then following the ruckus and either buss some shots to put the scared, tired animal out of its misery or smoking it out from a hole and then buss some shots or retrieving the carcass from the dogs who have mauled it to death. The lionfish is an actual predator. It can mess you up. It has venomous spines and to catch or kill it you have to get up close and personal. However, with the right training and experience from the IMA, hunting can be done in a responsible manner. One prerequisite though, you need to be able to swim.
So hunters, don’t get too bummed with the terrestrial ban and cheer up. If you are really concerned with conservation in Trinidad and Tobago, come join the hunt where responsible hunting is encouraged and can make a positive difference.
To find out more about the Lionfish contact:
Institute of Marine Affairs (IMA) – (868) 634-4291/4 Ext 2406
Department of Marine Resources and Fisheries (Tobago) – (868) 639-4446/4354
Fisheries Division – (868) 623-6028
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