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Feb 21, 2019

National Lionfish Management Plan 2019-2023 is Launched

Since 2008, we’ve been reporting about the Lionfish. And if you’re wondering why ten years later we are still talking about – well, that is because this fish is impossible to eradicate. You will recall in the last five years there have been sustained campaigns to raise awareness and promote the culling of this venomous fish.  The Lionfish is native to the Indian and Pacific Oceans and some two decades ago, they invaded the Western Tropical Atlantic. It is top predator and if not controlled it can harm reefs and deplete fish stocks. This fish reproduces all year long and a mature female releases roughly two million eggs a year. It’s a big concern for the region and Belize because it threatens the livelihoods of thousands. Today, the Fisheries Department and its partners launched a national strategy that will see collaborative efforts to try to control this fish population in our waters. Reporter Andrea Polanco reports.

 

Andrea Polanco, Reporting

The Lionfish is predatory, venomous fish. The invasive species has made its home in the reefs of Belize. But this fish poses a serious threat. It can wipe out commercial species and species that are unique to Belize. To the human eyes, the red or brown stripes make this fish beautiful to look at – but it characteristics make it one of the most feared fish in the seas. It eats any and everything in sight even other lionfish- with their stomachs expanding up to thirty times its normal size. It eats thirty juvenile fish in just one minute. Since 2008-2009, this fish has become a feared marine species because it poses a threat to the fishing industry.

 

Janelle Chanona

Janelle Chanona, Vice-President, OCEANA Belize

“You cut open a Lionfish and you are seeing biologically important species, commercially important species coming out of these stomachs. And you realise that the Lionfish is able to eat a fish more than half its body size. It’s able to eat pounds of other types of fish. Just veracious eaters. You realize just some of the scope of the problem. For Belizean fisherman not to be able to catch fish would be a disaster of epic proportion. We have about fifteen thousand Belizeans who are dependent on fishing and their beneficiaries. That would be a catastrophe on its own, in terms of not being able to catch finfish. And the reality is there because we have seen in other countries like the Bahamas for instance where native species have taking a serious toll on this because just not calculation how quickly the Lionfish would have become present in out waters. And then just from a cultural perspective in Belize we are a fish eating community who want fresh fish for breakfast lunch and dinner if that’s a possibility so the idea of not being able to have a recently caught fish on the plate or in the frying pan that would have almost an identity crisis for us. And the idea of consuming imported fish would be unheard of.”

 

Valdemar Andrade

Valdemar Andrade, Director of Cruise, B.T.B.  [File: June 2016]

“But then it creates also an impact for the fly fisherman that would come here and try to catch some of those fish. It creates an impact for the diving community because they don’t want to come here and look at an exotic species they want to come here and look at something they haven’t find anywhere else. The industry, overall, provides twenty-five percent of GDP. So, it tells you how important it is. It employs one in every seven people; so it provides in terms of overall employment and contribution to the economy of Belize.”

 

The lionfish caused quite a scare when it was first spotted in Belize. And the reason that this fish cannot be eradicated and is still a problem ten years later is because it breeds rapidly.  In 2015 – as many as ten lionfish per hectare were recorded in our waters. With their venomous spines and no natural predators in this region, it is impossible to remove this species from our waters.  So, in the last five years or so Belize followed a regional strategy and engaged in a number of activities and campaigns to control this invasive fish. They found out that humans are really the best known predators for the lionfish in our waters. In 2015, ninety-thousand lionfish were culled. Lionfish tournaments and the legalization of the spearing of lionfish became a part our tourism offerings.

 

Isaias Majil

Isaias Majil, Coordinator, Marine Protected Areas, Fisheries Department [File: June 2016]

“We issue a permit for people that are scuba diving can be able to spear only Lionfish. Because in our Belizean laws if you scuba dive you cannot spear. You cannot catch anything. You are just scuba diving for recreational purposes. It’s a trident, three- prong. So these are less likely to be able to kill other species rather than only Lionfish. And because of its design as well it minimizes the impact it can have on the ones that it is spearing as well.”

 

The decorative, tail, bones and fish are now used to make jewelry – giving locals an opportunity to earn an income. And so when people found out lionfish weren’t poisonous – restaurants started to put it on their menu – tourists and locals now eat this fish. And since 2015, nine percent of the restaurants in Belize now serve this tasty fish.

 

Maresha Reid

Maresha Reid, Chef, Pirate’s Treasure Restaurant

“Nobody was selling it at the time, so we decided that we will go ahead with that since every other fish is available everywhere and we are trying to get rid of the lionfish. Customers love the fish, it is very mild tasting. Everybody loves the idea of having the fish always available to eat. Being the only fish we serve it’s what everybody comes for and everybody loves it.”

 

But despite the successful roll out of these measures – Belize must stay on top of the lionfish. In the Bahamas – this fish has wiped out seventy-nine percent of juveniles in just one area. And that is why today the Fisheries Department and its partners launched a plan that will ramp up some of these activities and see the installation of working group to manage, monitor and evaluate that this species. This plan seeks to get the lionfish into one of the seafood processing facility by next year, as well as increase the value of the fish by diversifying the product markets. The stakeholders also want to see a lionfish certification scheme by 2020; a registry of all lionfish tournaments by 2021; control of this invasive fish within Belize’s no take zones by 2021. Wade explains.

 

Beverly Wade

Beverly Wade, Fisheries Administrator

“It seeks to ensure at the end of the day that we keep lionfish populations at a threshold where it is not negatively impacting our natural ecosystems. Secondly, the plan also looks at the development of economic activities and to encourage the targeting of lionfish and to encourage control of lionfish. Finally, the plan looks at having a framework in place that looks at collecting information that can now be fed into adaptive management plan that allows us to be able to, in an effective way, manage lionfish in Belize.”

 

And so stakeholders believe that way to control this fish and to reduce its impacts on our reef is to tap into economic value.

 

Jen Chapman

Jen Chapman, Country Manager, Blue Ventures

“So we are really now looking at how we can have a fishery, so catching Lionfish for economic return which is providing economic and social benefits. And guide that fishery and the development of the market towards a yield, a catch rate that is effective in suppressing Lionfish populations. Below its ecological threshold that basically it can be a level that the reef can sustain. That is the long-term strategy for Lionfish control.”

 

Reporting for News Five, I’m Andrea Polanco.

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