5/17/2016 – Molly O’Neil

Today was day seven of the “Lionfish in the Caribbean” course. Now one week in, we’re enthusiastically learning more about Lionfish management and what we will be working on in the field.

Education – The Earlier, the Better

We spent some time today going over how Education and Outreach (E&O) programs are structured to build support for Lionfish control programs. In general, programs that educate the public about Lionfish are most effective when they are put in place before an invasion – the earlier, the better. However, due to the rapid spread of the species, catching them before they move in isn’t always possible. With this in mind, what is the best way to use education to minimize the impacts of a Lionfish invasion?

The key idea here is messaging. Messaging involves taking the goals of an organization and communicating them effectively through different media outlets. Messaging must be goal orientated and specific to target audiences. It should always be credible and should consider the target audience when deciding on a media outlet, whether it is through TV, radio, newspapers, flyers, websites, or something more creative. Now, these strategies are all pretty conceptual. Let’s take a step back and see how messaging can be effectively used to convince different stakeholders to support creating a market for lionfish.

Tourists: Tourists in the Caribbean are generally interested in exploring the beauty of coral reefs. When educating tourists about the Lionfish invasion, it should be framed as a tasty opportunity to preserve the nature that they love to enjoy. Sometimes, integrating Lionfish removal into dive trips can be an effective method of entertainment, education, and eradication.

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Dive operators may incorporate Lionfish removal into their dive tours, giving tourists the chance to observe the fish before it is removed.

Fishermen: Commercial fishermen are concerned about their ability to earn a livelihood by fishing local waters. When educating fishermen about this issue, the Lionfish should be framed as a threat to commercial species as well as an economic opportunity.

In all E&O programs, measuring success is extremely important. After all, what good is an educational program if you don’t know if it’s actually educating? Programs should collect feedback and track participation in order to determine if the program is working.

Management

Controlling Lionfish invasions steps these issues up to a whole new level of difficulty. Again, early detection is key but often unrealistic. Therefore, most control efforts focus on efficiently using resources to control the invasion in popular, vulnerable, or easily accessible areas. This requires a strong coordinated effort from many different stakeholder groups such as governments, NGOs, researchers, volunteers, divers, and fishermen. When all of these actors put their heads together, they can come up with some truly inventive ideas for Lionfish control.

 

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These ideas are almost always centered on physical removal. Some divers tag sites where Lionfish are typically known to live with markers so that they can be removed more efficiently at a later date. Others use hand nets to remove Lionfish, especially in areas where fishing with a spear is not allowed. They can also be caught and stored in a bag, as shown in the photo above. Spearfishing is generally considered to be the most effective method of removing Lionfish, but it requires quite a bit of training and in some cases, regulation.

Some groups have even begun organizing special events and contents to encourage Lionfish removal. For example, some organizations hold Lionfish derbies, which challenge contestants to catch the largest amount of Lionfish in a short period of time. Prizes are typically given for the most fish, the biggest fish, and the smallest fish. These types of competitions can also be held on a longer scale, such as over the course of a month. Although these types of events have been highly effective, there is speculation about the availability of continued funding for them.

There is a broad array of unique methods to control Lionfish, but unfortunately not all of them work. Today in class, we realized that one of the most intriguing potential control methods had been debunked. Some scientists have suggested that it may be possible to teach native fish species to prey on Lionfish. In order to teach this behavior, divers would hand feed dead Lionfish to native species in hopes of changing their preferences. Unfortunately, this attempt did not go as planned. Instead of eating more Lionfish, native species such as Barracuda began to associate divers with food, resulting in hostile encounters and Barracuda bites. Ouch!

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The Reef Environmental Education Foundation, Inc. (REEF)

All of this information about E&O and management is certainly a lot to take in. So, what do these strategies look like in the real areas that are facing Lionfish invasions? The Reef Environmental Education Foundation, Inc. (REEF) is an excellent example of an organization that is developing effective E&O strategies and helping with Lionfish management. The organization’s Lionfish project provides a go-to source for reporting Lionfish sightings, which aid scientists who are trying to understand the spread of the species. It also sponsors and organizes Lionfish derbies in the Bahamas and in Florida. Finally, the organization hosts Lionfish workshops, where divers can learn about the fish and how to handle and remove it safely. This is an example of an organization that is effectively using targeted messaging and well-developed management goals to create effective strategies for controlling the Lionfish invasion.

What About Markets?

Interestingly, our reading for today merely brushed over the idea of creating a market for Lionfish as a solution to the invasion. This seems to be a recurring theme, largely because of anecdotal worries about the possibility of fishermen leaving juvenile fish and instead only catching fully-grown Lionfish that will fetch a better price. This project is the first to really examine this issue and more in order to create the possibility for a “triple win.” In an ideal situation, creating a market for Lionfish will have three positive benefits. First, it will provide an economic opportunity for fishermen. Second, it will reduce Lionfish densities in sensitive environments. And third, if fishermen have an economic incentive to catch Lionfish, it could reduce pressure on other commercial species. Talk about an idea worth exploring!

Field Work Preparations

After all that talk about E&O and management, we spent some time at the end of class practicing for our fieldwork. In St. Croix, we will be responsible for intercept surveys and interviewing locals and tourists in the USVI about their seafood preferences and their willingness to eat Lionfish. We had a great time asking each other the survey questions and giving each other a hard time to prepare for unexpected survey encounters. Overall, everyone was much more comfortable with the daunting task of interviewing strangers by the time class was over. We are looking forward to traveling to St. Croix and putting our newest skills to use!

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