V.I. National Park officials gave the go-ahead to allow limited modified spear fishing in park waters in order to boost the fight against Lionfish.
Caribbean Oceanic Restoration and Education (CORE) Foundation was issued a permit last week by VINP to allow for modified spear fishing to remove Lionfish in certain areas, explained VINP’s Chief of Resource Management Rafe Boulon.
“It’s not spear fishing,” said Boulon. “We’ve permitted CORE, and probably just the principals of CORE, to use a modified spear to remove Lionfish in cryptic-type water where you can’t use a net. Where nets are easy to use, there will not be any use of modified spears.”
CORE was formed in 2008 in St. Croix by avid scuba diver Joe Gulli to fight the spread of Lionfish in local waters. Since likely being dumped into the Atlantic Ocean in the wake of Hurricane Andrew, Lionfish — which are native to the Pacific Ocean — have wreaked havoc on coral reefs from Florida to the Bahamas.
The fish have no natural predators in the Atlantic Ocean or Caribbean Sea and feed on reef fish with a voracious appetite. The fish decimate reef fish populations, which leads to degradation of the reefs as seen in vast swaths of damaged corals in the Bahamas.
CORE was formed to organize the effort to eradicate Lionfish across the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and the Caribbean. Karl Pytlik is the St. John CORE coordinator and he has trained dozens of volunteers to search for and remove the fish.
Pytlik monitors messages from people who report sightings of the fish and has helped VINP manage the invasive species, explained Boulon.
“Karl has been instrumental in removing 90 plus percent of Lionfish from park waters and all around St. John,” said Boulon. “He’s a real go-getter in terms of the Lionfish. We don’t have the time or the people to be out there following up on every report without sacrificing our other projects.”
“Karl and CORE have been an incredible help to us and we just wanted to legalize the modified spear use in order to enable them to use the spears,” said Boulon.
The permit comes with strict restrictions detailing when the modified spears are to be used and the permit must be on the swimmer at all times, Boulon added.
VINP’s issuing of the permit itself highlights the severity of the threat posed by Lionfish.
“We are doing everything we can to remove Lionfish from the area,” said Boulon. “Our focus is to protect fish habitats, mangrove areas and shallow reef areas. We can’t cover everything obviously, but CORE has been a huge help.”
Even with CORE’s help, however, the fight against the Lionfish will not be an easy battle, Boulon added.
“The best we can hope for is to keep the numbers low enough in critical areas so they are not doing significant damage,” said the VINP Chief of Resource Management. “But unless something really dramatic happens — some viral epidemic sweeps through or a new predator comes around — the Lionfish problem is going to be forever more.”
The new permit to use modified spears in VINP waters will go a long way to help CORE’s effort, Pytlik explained
“The permit is great,” he said. “There are a lot of times where you can’t use a net. This will absolutely help the fight.”
Since Pytlik joined CORE’s Lionfish eradication effort a year ago, the group has removed more than 150 fish from local waters, he explained.
“To date, we’re well over 150 fish,” said Pytlik. “The first Lionfish was found a year ago March. The largest Lionfish we’ve caught is no more than 10 inches.”
“We just got an eight-inch fish out of Peter Bay two days ago and we are generally finding fish measuring five to eight inches,” said Pytlik. “Usually if they are smaller than nine inches, they are not mature and can’t breed. Most of the ones we are still finding are under that which is great because it means we are still facing a lot of juveniles.”
“I would say there are very little, if any, eggs being laid here in St. John waters,” he said.
While the task is daunting, Pytlik remains optimistic about the battle.
“I believe we have a fighting chance,” he said. “There are a lot of people who work in the park and on charters who still haven’t seen one. We are doing a good job and we can tell because the areas where fish have popped up, we go and take them out and then go back and they’re not there anymore.”
Pytlik responds to calls reporting sightings of the fish at least several times at week, he explained.
“I guess I really got going on this in August and since then I get calls easily several times a week,” said Pytlik. “It started slow, and then we got a really big push in January and February and then it slowed down again. But we consistently get at least two to three sightings a week and very rarely do I get anyone who misidentifies a fish.”
Snorklers should carry Lionfish markers, available at Friends of the Park Store and island dive shops, with them at all times and call CORE at 340-201-2342 to report sightings.
Pytlik continues to give presentations on the fish at Maho Bay Camps twice a month. Call the eco-resort at 776-6226 for the date of his next presentation. As the territory and the region continue to face the Lionfish threat, the stakes should not be underestimated, Pytlik added.
“It’s very simple, we have to protect what we all live off which is the environment,” he said. “This is a tourist destination and the least anyone can do is make a phone call.”