First St. John Lionfish Dive Search Nets Three Fish

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The group, above (L to R bottom row) Steve Howell, Stephanie Rushing, Jason Beasley, Leslie Charpentier, Cindy Cunningham (L to R top row) Franklin Tulloch, Bill Cunningham, Jon Steele and the haul, below.

After hearing reports of lionfish sightings in the Whistling Cay area a group of St. John divers headed under the waves on Sunday, July 10, to search for the invasive fish.

Although many swimmers keep an eye out for the fish while snorkeling in waters around St. John, the July 10 expedition was Love City’s first organized lionfish search dive, explained veteran scuba instructor Leslie Charpentier.

“Many people look for lionfish when they are out snorkeling and diving, and they often mark the area and call in the sightings so that the volunteer CORE response divers can go remove the fish,” said Charpentier. “What we did Sunday was an organized search dive for the first time from St. John. We hope to continue to do one each month or so.”

The first lionfish was spotted in Virgin Islands waters in early 2010 when divers off St. Croix nabbed a juvenile. Snorkelers and divers off St. John first started seeing lionfish in local waters in March 2010 and volunteers have nabbed more than 100 since then.

Scientists believe the fish were introduced to the Atlantic Ocean in the wake of Hurricane Andrew when a tropical fish owner likely dumped his tank into the sea. Since then, lionfish have been spotted across the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea from the Bahamas to South America.

Native to the Indian and Pacific Oceans, lionfish are capable of severe destruction as seen already in wide swaths of dead coral in waters off the Bahamas. Female lionfish can lay 4,000 to 30,000 eggs in a brood, can eat up to 20 juvenile reef fish daily and have no natural predators in the Caribbean.

As the threat of the invasive fish continued to grow, a group of divers led by Joe Gulli formed the Caribbean Oceanic Restoration and Education (CORE) Foundation. The group is dedicated to managing the lionfish invasion by bringing together local volunteers and divers.

Karl Pytlik, who manages the Friends of V.I. National Park Store, is the St. John CORE coordinator and he organized the July 10 dive along with Charpentier.

Along with Pytlik and Charpentier, six local divers headed out on July 10 to search for lionfish in the Whistling Cay area. Dan Boyd allowed the group use of his new Lovango Charters vessel, which used to be called Sea Biscuit and operated as a dive boat out of Caneel Bay.

The group started the day on the south side of Whistling Cay ranging down to about 40 feet, explained Charpentier.

“We had verbal reports that lionfish had been sighted in this area,” she said. “On the first dive we picked up the furthest east white mooring ball and headed east on a dive that ranged up to 40-feet deep. There was lots of great habitat but no fish.”

On the second dive of the day, the group headed west and spotted a lionfish almost immediately, Charpentier explained.

“On the second dive we headed west from the same mooring ball and spotted the first fish within minutes at about 40-feet and close to the reef edge,” she said. “This fish did something very strange. I watched it lose its color and turn white from tail to head in seconds.”

“A few minutes later, the color was back,” said Charpentier. “It appeared to be an instant kill — not a flinch when bagging it. We got two more fish between 40 and 50 feet deep.”

All three of the lionfish nabbed by the group measured between 12 and 13 inches, Charpentier added.

With three lionfish bagged, the dive was a success and the group hopes to head back under the waves next month to clean up another area, according to Charpentier.

“Many dive shops on St. Thomas and St. Croix have been doing these search dives and they are a good way to clean  up a particular area,” she said. “We have cleaned up Whistling Cay now and during our next dive we will target a new area — whatever area we get the most sightings reported from.”

While the dive group is dedicated to doing what it can to eradicate the lionfish threat, it’s still important for swimmers to watch for the species and report all sightings. Charpentier, who operates the sailing and diving charter Cloud 9 Sailing Adventures with Jason Beasley, has removed more than 30 lionfish from local waters this year alone.

Last week, the two returned to Whistling Cay and caught three more lionfish, Charpentier added.

“A few days later, Jason and I found and removed three more fish from the south side of Whistling Cay,” she said. “These fish ranged on size from 10, 11, and 11.5 inches.”

Cruz Bay Watersports and Cloud 9 Sailing Adventures provided the group’s tanks, weights and dive gear.

For more information about the local lionfish effort and CORE, or to report a sighting, call Pytlik at  340-201-2342 or email nolionfishstj@yahoo.com.