Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Drifting Ecosystem: Sargassum

Anjani Ganase, marine biologist, talks about Sargassum and signs of the changing ocean

In recent years, regional news networks have reported on repeated inundation events occurring on many beaches on southern and eastern Caribbean islands from massive amounts of Sargassum seaweed during the summer months. Sargassum on beaches has been seen in Tobago, Barbados and Antigua; the events were first reported in 2011 – 2012, 2014 – 2015 and again in 2016. Furthermore, during 2014, the amount of Sargassum that was washed up appeared to be greater in comparison to 2011, and now, six years later the events seem to have become a common scenario. Coastlines along Brazil and in West Africa have also experienced deluge by the Sargassum. Previous records in the news and scientific reports on these Sargassum inundation events in the southern Caribbean and West Africa are rare. Scientists have begun to investigate whether these events are part of a natural long-term cycle or the result of changes to the natural system.

Let us take a step back to first understand Sargassum seaweed, the ecosystem they house and the functional natural role in the ocean. The Sargasso Sea is located in the North Atlantic Ocean, aptly named after its most noticeable resident the Sargassum species of brown algae. The Sargassum seaweed is the only known algae that drifts in the open seas (pelagic). This is made possible through the use of air-filled bladders that keep them afloat and close to the light to photosynthesise and grow. Although many species of Sargassum are born attached to the benthos then carried out to the open ocean, there are two species, common to the Sargasso Sea, that are purely pelagic; they grow and propagate in open water without ever being attached to substrate.

The floating mats of Sargassum seaweed in the open water are a place of refuge for critters in the vast open sea. Sargassum is known to house a high diversity of marine life. Some of which are endemic, relying solely on the Sargassum as their home and source of food. Some of these endemic species include fish, such as the Sargassum fish – a species of frogfish known for camouflaging and pouncing on prey – as well as invertebrates such as crab and shrimp. Apart from the permanent residents, other organisms take temporary shelter, including juvenile sea turtles and marine fish larvae that seek refuge until they have grown. As a result, predators have also learned to hang around floating mass of Sargassum for an easy meal. 
Sargassum fish, Histrio histrio, sourced from "The Bahama Islands" by The Geographical Society of Baltimore 1905.

It was initially thought that the Sargassum that flooded our beaches came from the north, in the Sargasso Sea, carried by stronger winds and shifting currents. However, further investigations revealed that the Sargassum on Caribbean beaches was not that found in the Sargasso Sea. Through the use of satellite information of the ocean’s surface, it was found that the Sargassum came from the south from the circulating currents near the equator – the North Equatorial Recirculation Region (Gower et al. 2013), a place less known for Sargassum.

There are many theories about the unusual drift patterns of the Sargassum mats, and many of these studies are on going. One theory states that the conditions for algal bloom in the equatorial region were related to the nutrient outflows of the Amazon river; and possibly related to rising ocean temperatures and changes in circulation related to climate change (Johnson et al. 2012, United Nations 2016).

In the past, other “tides” of algae have become a source of nuisance and are even hazardous. Some naturally occur, for example along Florida’s gulf coast, where the red tides are named for the harmful algae (dinoflagellates) blooms (HABs). The algae release brevetoxins that affects the nervous system of marine organisms and humans. These tides have been recorded on ships’ logs in the region for centuries, but there is some debate about whether the tides have become more and more common. In England and the US, increasing events of green tides have been related to the blooms of the green algae, Ulva, which correlated with the increase in coastal eutrophication (a term which refers to excess nutrients due to runoff from the land, which causes plant growth and death of aquatic life from lack of oxygen).

Other golden (Sargassum) tides in the Gulf of Mexico have been linked to the increase in nutrient runoff from the Mississippi river into the Gulf (Smetacek and Zingone 2013). Ecological management plans were put into effect to reduce the amount of nutrients that run off into the ocean; and on-going research on the life cycles of the algae that lead to mass propagation.

Fortunately, there are no obvious toxic effects from Sargassum; but the smelly decaying seaweed is a nuisance especially on tourist beaches. The inundation may also affect local fisheries by clogging up nets. Mitigation efforts and resources to clean up the algae are quite expensive. Further investigations by scientists will allow us to plan for future, potentially permanent, changes to our ocean ecosystems and our connected livelihoods.
Sargassum natans (brown algae), San Salvador Island, Bahamas, taken in 2008. Photo by James St. Johns (, Creative Commons attribution 2.0

Johnson, D. R., Ko, D. S., Franks, J. S., Moreno, P., Sanchez-Rubio, G. (2012) The Sargassum invasion of the Eastern Caribbean and Dynamics of the Equatorial North Atlantic, Proceedings of the 65th Gulf and Caribbean Fisheries Institute.

Smetacek, V., Zingone, A. (2013) Green and golden seaweed tides on the rise, Nature, 504, 84-88.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Exploring Kick'em Jenny Volcano

The Caribbean archipelago is a chain of small islands in a vast deep ocean. Here Dr. Diva Amon explores the underwater volcano, Kick’em Jenny, off Grenada. Dr. Amon is a deep-sea biologist with experience in chemosynthetic habitats and human impacts on the deep sea. You can find out more via her Twitter ( and her website (

The Kick’em Jenny (KEJ) volcano first rumbled into the public eye on July 23, 1939, when it shot a cloud of steam and debris 275m up into the air, and sent 2-metre tsunamis to the shores of Grenada, the Grenadines and Barbados. While KEJ may be a looming threat to us here in Trinidad and Tobago, we usually fail to look past that, never stopping to ponder what strange environments and animals may lurk beneath the Grenadian seas down on the slopes of the volcano.

KEJ is the only active submarine volcano in the Caribbean, created by the subduction of the Atlantic Plate below the Caribbean Plate, and is located just 9km north of Grenada. It is also the most active volcano in the Caribbean, with thirteen eruptions since 1939, including one that recently caused a large portion of the volcanic cone to collapse. Because of the risk that KEJ poses to the southern Caribbean, it is monitored frequently, resulting in very detailed maps. These show a 1300m-high cone with its summit at only 190 m depth (within the reach of SCUBA divers!) sitting on the edge of the continental slope. While the crater was briefly investigated by NOAA using a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) in 2003, it wasn't until 2013 and 2014, during expeditions by the E/V Nautilus, that any exploration deeper than the crater was undertaken.
This bathymetric map was created during the E/V Nautilus expeditions. It clearly shows the crater and cone of Kick’em Jenny, as well as the debris avalanche that resulted from the catastrophic eruption and houses the two main areas of cold seeps (numbered). Photo credit: Carey et al., 2015.

The findings of this ROV exploration were extraordinary! We discovered completely unknown habitats: ten cold seeps with chemosynthetic communities along the debris slope below the collapsed volcano between depths of 1800m and 2100m! Amazingly, these are the first cold seeps found off Grenada and only the fourth in the southern Caribbean. Cold seeps are special deep-sea environments where bacteria use chemical energy from hydrocarbon fluids seeping from the seafloor to make food, a process known as chemosynthesis. These bacteria can be found inside or on the surfaces of animals, or growing in thick mats on the seafloor, and are the basis of the food chain at cold seeps, like plants are on land and in shallow waters. Cold seeps are unique because they have a plentiful food source (bacteria) so animals living there can grow to large sizes rapidly and reproduce quickly, unlike in the rest of the deep sea which is very food limited. As a result, cold seeps are oases of life filled with numerous endemic and interesting animals, with the KEJ seeps being no exception!

The KEJ seeps occur on steep slopes and appear as dark and white intertwining streams flowing downslope. The dark colour is reduced sediment and the white colour is the bacterial mats. These are areas where methane-rich fluid seeps out of the sediment and as a result, this is where the animals live! Unlike the Trinidad and Tobago seeps, which were roughly the size of football pitches, these are only a few metres across, and are inhabited by white chemosynthetic clams, pink sea cucumbers, and tiny brittle stars. The most conspicuous animal at the KEJ seeps is a species of mussel named Bathymodiolus boomerang, so named because the shell has a kink similar to that of a boomerang. These mussels are truly enormous with the largest documented mussel, measuring 36.6cm, discovered here. These mussels also house a stowaway: hiding within each is a two-inch worm covered in scales, a relationship we have yet to understand! Even though there were many species never seen before, there were also some overlapping with species seen at the Trinidad and Tobago seeps: snails, white shrimp, spiny crabs, metre-long tubeworms, and tiny white fan worms in bushels.

The Kick’em Jenny cold-seep communities host a diverse group of species, including enormous Bathymodiolus boomerang mussels, sea cucumbers, brittle stars, tubeworms, snails and crabs. Can you spot them all?

The fact that there are species shared between the KEJ seeps and the Trinidad and Tobago seeps sheds light on the dispersal and colonisation of cold seeps over large distances. The KEJ seeps may act as an important stepping stone for the movement of seep species between Trinidad and Tobago and the Gulf of Mexico. Findings seeps in this geologic setting was also unusual and is likely due to the burial of organic matter by the catastrophic collapse of the volcano some years ago. The organic matter in this high-pressure environment decomposed without oxygen leading to the creation of sulfides and methane that “flow” downslope providing energy for these unique communities. This leads us to believe that seeps and their chemosynthetic inhabitants may be more common worldwide than previously thought. Excitingly, we also suspect that many of the species discovered here are new to science but this can only be confirmed with further research.

Our work to understand the KEJ cold seeps and their inhabitants is only just beginning but the discovery of these sites is already provided tantalizing insights. These discoveries are yet another reminder of how little we know about the deep sea, especially here in the Caribbean. It is only by exploring the depths of the region that we can begin to understand what habitats and species exist, and how best we can work towards their preservation.

The Kick’em Jenny cold-seeps resemble rivers running down a mountain. The black sediment indicates where reduced fluids are seeping out to provide energy for the thick white bacterial mats and other seep fauna. Look closely and you can even spot some clam shells. The tool tray of the Remotely Operated Vehicle, including the thermometer, can be seen in the foreground of the photo. Photo credit: Ocean Exploration Trust.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Mushroaming in Tobago

Jeffrey Wong Sang is a member of the Trinidad and Tobago Field Naturalists Club and an amateur mycologist who chose to study fungi to fill a gap that has long existed in the local biodiversity of Trinidad and Tobago. He is the administrator of only local Facebook group “Mushrooms of Trinidad and Tobago" with a following of just over 800. His current objective is to raise awareness of the existence of the mushrooms and share his knowledge. To encourage others to appreciate our mushrooms, his goal is to have this country’s first Mushroom Museum.

Mushroaming you ask? Yes, it is one’s ability to walk in nature and relax and explore whilst looking for mushrooms.

A mushroom can be defined as the fruiting body of a fungus, and the world’s largest living organism, is a honey fungus in the Blue Mountains in Oregon stretching 2.4 miles.
Orange veiled lady (Phallus multicolor) sparked the fascination with mushrooms All photos courtesy Jeffrey Wong Sang
Oyster mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus)

What originally began as a fascination with the physical beauty has now “mushroomed” into a full science project to locate, photograph, document, identify and preserve the local mushrooms for the public to be aware of the existence of these little known beauties we commonly refer to as jumbie umbrellas or jumbie parasols. Steeped in folklore, fungi are sometimes feared for being the spirit of dead evil persons. The foraging of wild mushrooms for food is not commonly practiced in Trinidad and Tobago because of this stigma; and it is not surprising that not much more work has been done to research, for example, the next cure for diabetes or cancer.

 In 1951, the first book “Fungi of Trinidad and Tobago” by R.E.D. Baker and W.T. Dale was published. This was the first documentation of our Fungi. Many years later, in 2006, this was followed by another study over a five year period (2001-2006): the book “Fungi of the Caribbean” by Minter, Rodriguez and Mena is to this day considered the “bible” for Caribbean Fungi . It documented 5,193 specimens which I use as my base data for the current project. I am able to add new photography and real preserved specimens that may be shown to the public. All the Mushroom specimens are currently being preserved in alcohol;  in the future, we hope to preserve the larger specimens by Plastination, which is a safe process of infusing the specimens with preserving chemicals.
Jeffrey with Macrocybe titans
Golden Trumpet (Xeromphalina campenella)

Mushroom collecting for the Museum actually began in Tobago in August 2015 in Castara where I find solace in the greenery of the forest of the North Coast. Many areas are still to be explored and some limited mushroaming has been enjoyed in Lambeau, Plymouth, the north coast from Castara to Charlotteville, the famous Gilpin Trail and Pigeon Peak. The Main Ridge Forest beckons to be explored in more detail; and we hope that, with sponsorship, we may continue to document the Tobago specimens.

In November 2015, the fourth  TT Bioblitz came to Tobago; and Charlotteville was chosen as the base camp. All specimens within a five mile radius were counted in a 24 -hour  time frame. The Fungus group was able to document 30 Fungi in the period allocated.

Tobagonians were invited to see the first public Mushroom display at the Bioblitz base camp. The mushroom collection continues to grow in leaps and bounds and is currently looking for a public space to permanently house the accumulation while continuing the public education drive, through displays in malls and schools. Requests for displays may be sent to TTFNC ( admin

The science of the project is also taking off, and the UWI Life Sciences department has consented to assist in identifying the already collected specimens using DNA technology. The first 30 specimens have been submitted and we are awaiting results.

So take a walk in the wild and breathe. Look for some mushrooms and post your pictures with a note about the location on the Facebook page, Mushrooms of Trinidad and Tobago. It will relax you, and you'll be contributing to an exciting research project.

Split gill fungus (Schizophyllum commune)

Orange cup fungus (Cookeina sp)
Common field mushroom (Chlorophyllum molybdites)

Violet branched Coral fungus (Clavulina amethystina)

Thursday, August 17, 2017

The Spectacular Snakes of the Main Ridge Reserve

This week Amy Deacon, Lecturer in the Department of Life Sciences at The University of the West Indies, St Augustine and Secretary of the Trinidad and Tobago Field Naturalists’ Club continues her series on the biodiversity of the Main Ridge Reserve (MRR). Today, she teams up with herpetologist Renoir Auguste to introduce us to the snakes of the MRR. 
Tobago has about 25 species of snake, none of which are venomous. Most of these species can be found in and around the Main Ridge. Among them are the Boa Constrictor - the largest snake on the island; the Brown Vine Snake - a common snake also found in gardens; and the Tobago False Coral  – which can be found nowhere else in the world! Together these three species highlight just some of the different shapes, sizes and habits of snake fauna found in the reserve.

Reaching an intimidating 4 metres long, the Macajuel (Boa constrictor) is the largest snake on the island. Within the Main Ridge it is fairly common, and may be found in the trees or on the ground. Like all snakes, it is a predator and is most active at night when it sets off on a hunt for opossums, rodents, birds and reptiles, which it ambushes, bites and squeezes to death (hence the ‘constrictor’ part of its name). Although this is a terrifying prospect for these small creatures, it is not venomous,  and not aggressive to humans unless provoked.
The Boa Constrictor or Macajuel is the largest snake in Tobago, and an important predator in the MRR. Photo by Renoir Auguste

As Tobago lacks mammalian top predators, such as the ocelot, boa constrictors play an important role within the ecosystem and should be protected both inside and outside of the MRR. Sadly, it is not uncommon to come across boa roadkill, as the snakes commonly use the North Side, Windward and Bloody Bay-Roxborough roads to move between patches of forest in the MRR.

The snake you have the best chance of seeing in Tobago is the Brown Vine Snake (Oxybelis aeneus), thanks to its daytime habits and broad habitat preferences. As well as making its home in the MRR, it is also a frequent visitor to gardens and other open areas where it may be seen posing on fences. It is more commonly known as the ‘Horsewhip’, due to its slender build and distinct pointed snout; indeed it is considerably shorter and slimmer than the Boa, but nonetheless can reach a length of 1.5 metres.
True to its name, this snake spends most of its time in the trees beautifully mimicking a vine to camouflage it from both predators and unsuspecting prey. If a predator sees through its clever disguise, the horsewhip will open its mouth wide, revealing a dark lining which it is believed gives some predators a fright. It too is an important predator in the MRR, favouring lizards but also feasting on frogs and small birds given the opportunity. Being both long and lightweight means it can hunt prey even on the thinnest branches, where it uses a ‘sit and wait’ strategy.
The sleek, well-camouflaged Horsewhip - Photo by Renoir Auguste

Much less is known about the next snake, the Tobago False Coral or ‘Red Snake’ (Erythrolampus ocellatus), aside for the important fact that so far it has been found nowhere else in the world and is thus classified as ‘endemic’ to the island. It is the smallest of the three snakes, reaching just 50 cm long, and is a striking red colour with black and white eye spots along its back. Although it superficially resembles Trinidad’s venomous coral snake, it is in fact harmless to humans.

The Tobago false coral is often found in cocoa plantations as well as inside the MRR; it has been spotted along the Roxborough-Bloody Bay road as well as to the south-west of the reserve, near Castara. It tends to be particularly active early in the morning before it gets too hot, in search of other small snakes and lizards. Undoubtedly we have a lot more to learn about this iconic species, but in the meantime it would be an excellent flagship species for the protection of snakes and other biodiversity within the Main Ridge; not only is it endemic to Tobago, but it already boasts the colours of the national flag!
 Among the snakes endemic to Tobago is this  False Coral sporting the national colours - photo by Renoir Auguste

Some people simply dislike snakes, but there is never a rational reason to kill a snake in Tobago. None of Tobago’s snakes are venomous and they all serve important roles in the ecosystem, not least in regulating the populations of prey species. In fact, snakes can be used as ‘indicators’ of ecosystem health; if there are healthy populations of predators, there must be healthy populations of prey! So, whether you are a snake-lover, or someone who is stricken with fear at the sight of one, when it comes to snakes the right response is always to ‘live and let live’.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Mysterious Mammals of the Main Ridge Reserve

This week Amy Deacon, Lecturer in the Department of Life Sciences at The University of the West Indies, St Augustine and Secretary of the Trinidad and Tobago Field Naturalists’ Club resumes her series on the biodiversity of the Main Ridge Reserve (MRR). Today, we will visit the mammals of the MRR. The most abundant mammals in the forest by far are the flying ones – the bats - but we will save those amazing creatures for another article. Here we will focus on the wingless mammals that make the Reserve their home. First published in the Tobago Newsday on July 10, 2017

Many will be surprised to learn that Tobago supports 36 native mammals – 16 if you don’t include the bats. I have chosen three of the most interesting of Tobago’s mammals to highlight in today’s column, to convince you that we have lots to learn even about the most charismatic of the Main Ridge’s inhabitants.

The Robinson's Mouse Opossum. This rather cute and compact marsupial spends much of its time up in the trees. Photo courtesy of Renoir Auguste

The Red-rumped Agouti is the mammal you have the best chance of spotting when walking in or around the reserve. This is partly because they are the most abundant but also because, unlike many forest mammals, they tend to be more active during the day time (especially at dawn and dusk). Even so, you are only likely to catch a glimpse as they are, quite sensibly, wary of humans.

Avoiding people is not the only way in which agoutis demonstrate intelligence. Food can be in short supply during the dry season, therefore agoutis have to be good planners. Their clever solution is to bury food in small pits in the ground during the rainy season when it is plentiful, so that when times are hard, they have a back-up plan. This also makes them vital dispersers of seeds for many of the Reserve’s tree species, as some buried treasure inevitably gets left behind to germinate. In this way these large rodents make an important contribution to the health and diversity of the Main Ridge forest.

Although it is illegal to hunt game inside the reserve, humans are still one of the agouti’s main predators, especially once they venture beyond the MRR boundary. Indeed, agouti are the most widely-hunted mammal in T&T as a whole. Other threats come in the form of the large snakes with which they share their habitat – such as the Boa Constrictor (Macajuel). However, on sensing a boa, an agouti will start drumming the ground loudly with its hind foot. This attracts other agouti, and together they drum to discourage the snake from coming closer. They are also capable of making themselves appear larger when in the presence of a predator, by making their hair stand on end.

A much less well-known inhabitant of the reserve is the mysterious Crab-eating Raccoon. Indeed, many people have never even heard of this shy, nocturnal mammal, let alone seen one! This is especially surprising given that they can reach an impressive 90 cm long. With their masked faces and banded tails, these raccoons look similar to their urbanised North American relatives, but are less fluffy and tend not to venture into human settlements as much, although they are found in a variety of habitats in both Trinidad and Tobago.

Unlike the ground-dwelling agouti, crab-eating raccoons split their time between the forest floor and the treetops, and as such they are remarkably agile. They prefer to live near water and possess an incredible sense of touch, allowing them to feel underwater for their prey with their paws– including for their namesake. However, despite their name, they actually enjoy a wide variety of foods from frogs and insects to fruits and seeds, as well as crustaceans.
Crab-eating Raccoon in Tobago. Rarely seen, but captured here using motion-sensor camera technology - Photo courtesy of the MSc Biodiversity Conservation UWI

Equally elusive and undoubtedly one of the Main Ridge’s cutest inhabitants is the Robinson’s Mouse Opossum. These can be found in a wide range of habitats, including lower montane forest, and happily reside throughout the MRR. They feed primarily during the night on fruits and insects up in the canopy, scampering nimbly along branches and using their furry ‘prehensile’ tail to grip on where necessary. As a result of their nocturnal, arboreal habits this tiny marsupial is rarely seen; in the daytime they find or build nest-like homes up in the trees for protection.

If you are lucky enough to see one, you will easily tell it apart from a regular opossum (Manicou) both by its much smaller size (adults don’t get any larger than 20cm), and distinctive black face mask.
Unusually, despite being a marsupial (thus related to kangaroos and the other Australian mammals) mouse opossums do not have a pouch. Nonetheless, their tiny 6-14 babies are born just 1cm long and must cling on to their mother’s teats for five weeks. Without the security of a protective pouch they have to hold on extremely tight, especially as their mother continues to climb acrobatically though the canopy in search of food!

For all three of these species, the Main Ridge Reserve provides vital refuge – in the case of the agouti from hunters, and for the others in the form of protecting their forest home from development and agriculture. We still have much to learn about the MRR’s mammals and it is hoped that recent and continuing surveys using motion-sensor cameras will greatly improve our understanding of their habits and distribution, helping us to do an even better job of protecting them.
Agouti captured on a motion-sensor camera. Such cameras allow us to learn more about the habits and distribution of the MRR's often elusive mammals- Photo courtesy of the MSc Biodiversity Conservation UWI

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Lionfish: empowering native craft and food entrepreneurs

Fadilah Ali is an ecologist with a specialty in invasive species biology, control and management. She has a Masters degree in Environmental Science with a focus on Biodiversity and Conservation and is currently completing her PhD in Ocean and Earth Sciences at the University of Southampton in England where she researched the lionfish invasion in the Southern Caribbean

As a means to raise the landed value of lionfish and encourage their removal, craft makers are utilising lionfish spines, rays and tails. These materials currently being used for jewellery are typically discarded but have been found to increase the landed value of lionfish by 30 to 60% in some cases. Lionfish spines, rays and tails have been transformed into elegant earrings, necklaces, bracelets and even cufflinks and rings. In addition to encouraging lionfish removal, use of the spines and rays for jewellery can create income for local economies whilst also empowering local people. For example in Belize, lionfish jewellery have empowered groups of local women; all sales from their jewellery is returned to the local community to fund further projects which can benefit others. Utilising lionfish for jewellery is popular in Belize and has recently been introduced to the Bahamas, Grenada and St Vincent and the Grenadines. Lionfish jewellery in addition to being a fashionable and a trendy means of engaging in conservation type activities also helps to raise awareness of the lionfish invasion.

Lionfish accessories, photo by Fadilah Ali

Lionfish have been promoted as a food fish throughout the invaded region to encourage their removal. Within their native range, they are considered to be a food fish and in other cultures, members of the Scorpionfish family are viewed as delicacies. Compared to other native species within the invaded range, lionfish have lower levels of saturated fatty acids but a higher n-3 fatty acid content. Their white meat is firm and possesses a mild flavour, making it a perfect foundation for a variety of lionfish recipes. Furthermore, markets have been created for all sizes of lionfish to avoid size selection during removals (i.e. leaving lionfish behind so they can get become larger). Smaller sized lionfish are simply coated in breadcrumbs or cassava flour and deep-fried whole or their meat used for lionfish sausages or on lionfish pizza. Larger sized lionfish can also be served whole or be fileted with the leftover head and backbone then being used as a stock for soup and sauces whilst the spines are often baked and then used as toothpicks. Promoting lionfish as a food fish not only encourages their removal but this subsequently has ecological benefits. By focusing consumption on an invasive species, markets based on more exploited species such as snapper, grouper or lobster can be diverted. The novelty of lionfish as a food fish can not only stimulate public interest and curiosity, but it can also help to raise awareness whilst also contributing to local economies.
Fried whole lionfish, photo courtesy Lionfish University

Lionfish sushi, photo courtesy E Sushi shop, Aruba

The red lionfish (Pterois volitans) has been established within the wider Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico regions as well as North, South and Central America. Native to the Indo-Pacific region, lionfish flourish within this invaded range, as they are free from natural enemies and the warm temperatures and abundance of prey times allow them to attain greater sizes and densities as compared to their native range. Since their introduction more than two decades ago, many management strategies have been enacted with varying levels of success leading to the general consensus that complete eradication of lionfish is impossible but controlled management has proven successful at reducing lionfish densities. Targeted removals by divers have been recognized as the most effective means for control but due to their increasing densities at depths exceeding diver limits, trapping has been investigated as an additional means of removal. In order to encourage removal, commodification of lionfish has been performed throughout the invaded region mostly through encouraging lionfish as a food fish, but also through the use of lionfish jewellery.

Since it is unlikely that lionfish will ever be completely eradicated, finding multiple means to encourage their removal whilst also raising awareness about the problem will be the best means for the future. When ordering fish at a restaurant within the Caribbean, ask for lionfish! This demand will then cause local restaurants to ask their fishermen to supply them which then encourages removal! If you happen to see lionfish, please inform the Department of Marine Resources and Fisheries in Tobago at 639-4446; 639-4354 or dial 211 for the Contact Centre. If spotted in Trinidad, then contact the Institute of Marine Affairs at 634-4291/4, Ext 2406.

Preparing lionfish spines for use in fashion accessories, photo by Fadilah Ali