Seventy lionfish have been caught off the shores of St. John.
While the lionfish threat is serious and is here, there is hope.
That was the message Karl Pytlik shared with about 70 residents who attended a lionfish response symposium at the Mongoose Junction courtyard on Tuesday night, February 1.
Pytlik, the Caribbean Oceanic Restoration and Education Foundation’s St. John coordinator, has been on the front lines in the fight against the invasive fish species on St. John.
Scientists believe lionfish were introduced to the Atlantic Ocean in the wake of Hurricane Andrew when a fish tank was dumped into the sea. Since then, the native Indian Ocean fish has wreaked havoc in waters from Florida to the Bahamas.
With no natural predators, the fish devastates reefs by devouring reef fish, vital to the health of coral. Pytlik shared images from the Bahamas where reefs are covered in algae and fish are all but absent.
The dire situation in the Bahamas could be avoided in local waters, according to Pytlik.
“So far there have been 70 lionfish caught off St. John and about 1,500 across the territory,” he said. “Basically the biggest thing we can do is raise community awareness and get people to help and volunteer.”
Many residents did just that at the February 2 meeting, Pytlik added.
“We had a lot of people who signed up and volunteered and we had a lot of people who have boats who are willing to lend their resources,” he said.
While National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials have pushed eating the fish in other areas, the lionfish diet will not work in the Virgin Islands, according to Pytlik.
“We have tested seven fish for ciguatera poisoning from the reefs and four were positive for the toxin,” he said. “We’re warning against eating the fish here.”
Instead, the best way to combat the fish seems to be vigilance.
“Every fish that gets sighted and marked and called into us, we are removing,” said Pytlik. “We do have a chance to keep their numbers down. We need people trained to remove the fish and we need everyone to report all sightings.”
It’s difficult to tell what impacts lionfish have already had on local reefs, Pytlik added.
“It’s a little hard to tell about the impact right now, but you can figure that those fish are eating quite a bit of the reef fish out there,” he said.
With a coordinated effort between the British and U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and Turks and Caicos, the CORE Foundation has a comprehensive lionfish plan which draws on as many resources as possible, explained Pytlik.
“We’re trying to bring as many resources out of the community as we can,” he said. “We definitely need more funding, but we do have a real management plan. We need to draw on everyone for this.”
By affecting the health of reefs, lionfish could potentially affect the entire tourism industry, according to Pytlik.
“This really affects everyone,” he said. “In some areas, like the Bahamas, there has been a 25 percent drop in the scuba industry just in the past few years. That is the equivalent to something like $30 million.”
“And if people aren’t diving, they’re not staying in hotels or eating in restaurants or shopping in stores,” Pytlik said. “It could really hurt us. It could affect everyone, not just the dive industry.”
Dire impacts like seen in the Bahamas are still a few years away in the Virgin Islands, but Pytlik is trying to make sure those dead reef images are never seen in local waters.
“We are working as hard we can to avoid what happened in waters closer to Florida, where these fish came out of the blue,” he said. “We have a chance to stay ahead of it here.”
To help in the battle against lionfish swimmers and snorkelers should carry markers — available at local dive shops, Friends of the Park Store, St. John Spice and more — and call the CORE hotline to report all sightings. Scuba divers can get trained to remove the fish and anyone with a vessel can host divers searching for the fish.
Call CORE’s hotline at 340-201-2342 to report a sighting of a lionfish. Pytlik will be hosting a series of lionfish seminars this season on Wednesday nights rotating between Maho Bay Camps and Estate Concordia Preserve. Call the resorts to confirm Pytlik’s schedule. For more information, to volunteer or register for a lionfish training email Pytlik at firstname.lastname@example.org.