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OVER-FISHING for conservation

Wednesday, July 16, 2014    

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GRAND CAYMAN, Cayman Islands — Comfort Suites Grand Cayman, which is franchised by Choice Hotels International, Inc is working to help rid the Cayman Islands waters of the invasive lionfish introduced to the Caribbean from the Asia-Pacific region.

Partnering with local dive company Ambassador Divers and the Cayman United Lionfish League (CULL), the hotel has launched a fishing tournament which is counter-intuitive to the norms of sustainable fishing.

"Our lionfish tournament, held four times a year, awards prizes not only for the largest but also the smallest fish, to ensure they don't breed as much," said Jason Washington, owner of Ambassador Divers.

Washington also runs classes teaching tourists how to handle the predator fish, which have venomous spikes covering their bodies.

"People bought the lionfish for their aquariums and, when they saw how they devoured other fish in the tanks, dumped them into the ocean, not knowing the species could produce 30,000 eggs every four days," he said.

"Without natural predators, the lionfish devoured local fish at an alarming rate, and compounded their damage by also killing fish which cleaned and maintained our vulnerable coral reefs, causing serious harm to our coral reef systems," Washington lamented.

For his part, Tom Mason, general manager of the Comfort Suites resort on the storied Seven Mile Beach, said: "The lionfish was introduced to Cayman Islands waters and have wreaked havoc on our local fish population, which has in turn damaged our coral reefs, so we jumped at the opportunity to do something about it with our partners at Ambassador Divers."

The team says it may never be able to eliminate the voracious species, but it is satisfied with stemming the tide of the invasion.

"We know this is not possible," Washington said in relation to eliminating the lionfish. "We can only maintain our reef. Much like someone cuts their grass, we can never completely rid our waters of this fish, but we can, through our culling efforts, help stem the tide," Washington added.

The invasive species is not eaten by the Caribbean predator fish, so Washington looked ashore for a solution: "Fortunately it is quite a delicious species and we've shown the local restaurants how to appreciate its white, flaky flesh. Demand has outstripped our ability to supply, so we need more tourists to help us fish."

The Cayman Islands even got the celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain to appreciate the taste of the lionfish.

"It's not often you have a chance to over-fish and we're hoping more of our guests take advantage of the very rare opportunity to actually over-fish for conservation," Mason said.

The over-fishing lionfish tournament is guided by the Cayman Islands Marine Conservation Board.

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