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Battle lionfish heats up

Friday, March 30, 2012

AS the battle against the lionfish, that stealthy marine predator invading Jamaican waters, intensifies, more than 2,000 fisherfolk have already been trained in the management of the fish, the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) has said.

Novelette Douglas, speaking on behalf of NEPA’s chief executive officer, Peter Knight, made the announcement at a function last week marking Scotiabank Jamaica officially joining the fight against the fish that threatens the livelihoods of hundreds of fisherfolk in the island. She also emphasised the invasive nature of the species, noting that more than 100 species of fish and crustaceans are sometimes found in the stomach of the lionfish, including shrimp, crab, parrot fish and snapper.

The training is part of the National Lionfish Project, part of a larger Regional Project — Mitigating the Threat of Invasive Alien Species in the Insular Caribbean (MTIASIC) — funded by the Global Environment Facility and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). It seeks to strengthen partnerships among government and nongovernmental agencies in Jamaica, as well as to promote regional cooperation. Here in Jamaica, the project is led by NEPA and the University of the West Indies (UWI) Discovery Bay Marine Lab.

However, the success of the programme depends, in large part, on turning the predator into tiger-striped ‘gold’ for the dinner table by increasing awareness of its commercial value among the country’s fishers.

The UWI Centre for Marine Sciences (UWI-CMS) — Marine Invasive Species Research Programme, headed by marine biologist Dr Dayne Buddo, has designed a two-day training programme for community groups covering all aspects of lionfish management. These aspects include characteristics of the fish, the problems they cause, best hunting practices by spearfishers, safe handling, preparation for cooking, as well as treatment of injuries from the lionfish.

An important aspect of the training is the change in mindset against the consumption of the fish.

“We have so far found that most persons are afraid of the fish, and this stems from the fact they are not aware of how to avoid being stung, as well as the misconception that the flesh is filled with poison. Lionfish is consumed in Jamaica and The Bahamas, as well as other neighbouring countries, in an effort to control and reduce the population, and right now this is one of the most effective ways of controlling the population,” Dr Buddo said.

At the launch of its new Eat Them to Beat Them pilot project, Scotiabank last week donated a 2012 Toyota Landcruiser Prado valued at $4 million to the UWI-CMS to help advance the effectiveness of this lionfish research programme.

The vehicle will be used to transport specialist equipment and other tools, such as boats, required by the team for their fieldwork, which includes research and training across Jamaica.

“We are pleased to provide this grant as part of the Scotiabank Go Green initiative, which is our programme of protecting and revitalising the environment by supporting and implementing programmes which educate about, and help mitigate against environmental threats,” said Monique Todd, Scotiabank's vice president of marketing, corporate affairs and public relations.

At the function to hand over the vehicle at the UWI Port Royal Marine Laboratory, guests were treated to samples of the lionfish cooked in a number of ways by top Jamaican caterers From Thought to Finish, operated by Jacqui Tyson. Guests were also provided with recipes on how to prepare the fish.

Brian Jardim, CEO of Rainforest Seafoods, which is distributing the prepared lionfish commercially, described it as “a mild white fish fillet, which is very easy to work with, grouper-like in flavour, and which “could be incorporated into fish sandwiches and fish and chip meals” in the future.

He said sightings of the fish throughout the Caribbean were “getting increasingly worrying” for the seafood business.

According to information from the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, the lionfish is a member of the Scorpionfish family and is originally from the Indo-Pacific Ocean and the Red Sea. It was first discovered in the Caribbean in the 1990s and grows to up to fwo feet in length. Usually, lionfish are not aggressive towards humans, but they have venomous spines, the stings from which can be very painful. Lionfish are voracious predators and one lionfish may eat more than 30,000 juvenile fish per year.

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