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
An edited version of this article was published in the Trinidad Express, Tues 17th Sept 2013
“Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil and you’re a thousand miles from the corn field.” D. Eisenhower
Trinidad & Tobago is a difficult place to care. In recent media coverage, The Honourable Attorney General was lauded for claiming that people “should be far more concerned about the lives of people than the animals that attack them”. He has also stated that: “Whatever issue the Veterinary Association has we will treat with it, but I want to forewarn persons that I am not about to let technicality and nicety lead to the death of another person.” This administration deserves commendation for trying to tackle this highly complex issue. However, these statements suggest that animal professionals and animal enthusiasts put animals before humans. This is unfortunate and misleading. As if it is not possible to care about people AND animals.
Just to clarify here, Vets work with people and animals on a daily basis. Clinical Vets interact daily with animals and spend a hell of a long time learning about them, particularly dogs. We are professionals who are specifically trained to provide comprehensive recommendations to improve the relationship between humans and dogs. We are also the professionals on the front lines who get stuck with the unfortunate consequences of outdated or misguided legislation. Just because professionals and animal experts (including Veterinarians, Animal Behaviourists, Trainers, Animal Welfarists and others) disagree with aspects of the legislation does not mean these professionals agree with no legislation. Their opinions and advice are critical given this Bill espouses supposedly responsible ownership to end tragic outcomes involving people and dogs.
Unfortunately, the Dog Control Bill in its current state has the Veterinary community extremely concerned. It wastes resources by focusing on dogs of a certain breed rather than focusing on dogs of any breed that could be out of control. While we gamble on the breeds of dog that are classed as dangerous, we miss the importance of proper rearing of dogs, socialisation and training. As my esteemed colleague, Dr. Lezama-Driscoll of Trinidad and Tobago’s Veterinary Association (TTVA) stated, “If we choose to enact legislation that has failed in other countries, some of which have had it for as long as 20 years, what kind of governance do we have? What kind of governance are we choosing? Are we willing to pick up the dregs of another country’s laws after they are already deciding to throw it out, and re-fashion it for our own uses?” Dr. Curtis Padilla, President of TTVA gives examples of legislation that are more applicable to our situation, such as the Antigua Dog Control Act.
The Vet Association is recommending that rather than classing dogs by breed, they should be split into two groups by weight with all dogs over a specified weight required by law to be microchipped, allowing owners to be identified.
Dr. Padilla also points out that implementing the Bill will be a herculean task. He stresses that there is no transparent, accountable Authority or Management Board in place to actually get the job done. Without that, among other things the Bill is flawed. Also, the Bill seeks to use stiff penalties to prevent owners from dumping their animals. To use the AG’s term here, this is a ‘nicety’. We are no more able to enforce this law than our speeding or littering laws. Hats off if this can be implemented, but it sounds like many other things in this country, a pie in the sky.
This Bill is like trying to treat a dog with fleas. One approach is to manually remove the fleas we see on the dog and squish them one at a time. Anyone who has dealt with fleas knows it is impossible to get rid of them this way. Pull out and squish as many as you like. Without treating the root causes, the fleas will continue to wreak havoc and suck the blood out of your dog, you and your children. They will joyously multiply and spread to your neighbour’s dogs while we celebrate the few you kill as a victory. Responsible ownership has to be more than just buzz words.
In the meantime some of the dog breeds listed in the legislation, such as the Fila Brasileiro and Japanese Tosa, are as uncommon in T&T as a pet Yeti. Many Vets have never seen one and are curiously awaiting the arrival of these breeds to their clinics. If you own a Yeti, bring it in too. While we wait, many Vets will continue to try to facilitate a positive relationship between people and animals with the help of fellow animal professionals. We will encourage discussions around responsible ownership as we recognise the increasing popularity of large breed dogs over 50 kgs including Mastiffs, Rottweilers, German Shepherds and plain ole big head pothound. When any of these dogs attack, maim or kill a human it is a tragic reminder that any dog can have behavioural problems, as a result of poor socialisation, misguided aggression training and overall irresponsible ownership.
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