By DAVID McFADDEN
KINGSTON, Jamaica (AP) — Jamaica is reporting a big decline in sightings of lionfish, the voracious invasive species that has been wreaking havoc on regional reefs for years and wolfing down native juvenile fish and crustaceans.
Some four years after a national campaign got started to slash numbers of the candy-striped predator with a mane of venomous spines, Jamaica's National Environment and Planning Agency is reporting a 66 percent drop in sightings of lionfish in coastal waters with depths of 75 feet (23 meters).
Dayne Buddo, a Jamaican marine ecologist who focuses on marine invaders at the Caribbean island's University of the West Indies, attributes much of the local decrease in sightings to a growing appetite for their fillets. He said Sunday that Jamaican fishermen are now selling lionfish briskly at markets. In contrast, a few years ago island fishermen "didn't want to mess" with the exotic fish with spines that can deliver a very painful sting.
"After learning how to handle them, the fishermen have definitely been going after them harder, especially spear fishermen. I believe persons here have caught on to the whole idea of consuming them," Buddo said in a phone interview.
Lionfish, a tropical native of the Indian and Pacific oceans likely introduced through the pet trade, have been colonizing swaths of the Caribbean and Atlantic for years - from the U.S. Eastern Seaboard and the hard-hit Bahamas to the Gulf of Mexico. They have been such a worrying problem that divers in the Caribbean and Florida are encouraged to capture them whenever they can to protect reefs and native marine life already burdened by pollution, overfishing and the effects of climate change.
Across the region, governments, conservation groups and dive shops have been sponsoring fishing tournaments and other efforts to go after slow-swimming lionfish to try and stave off an already severe crisis. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration launched a campaign in 2010 urging the U.S. public to "eat sustainable, eat lionfish!"
But just because shallow waters hugging coastlines have seen declines, the fast-breeding species is hardly on the way out. Fat, football-sized lionfish are daily caught in fishing pots set in deeper waters that spear fishermen and recreational divers never see.
In Jamaica, targeted efforts to remove them are ongoing even as a national lionfish project financed by the Global Environment Facility and the U.N. Environment Program project recently ran its course after four-and-a-half years.
"I don't think we'll ever get rid of it, but I think for the most part we can control it, especially in marine protected areas where people are going after it very intensively and consistently," Buddo said.
It remains to be seen exactly how much impact fishing and marketing of lionfish meat can have. For now, it's the biggest hope around. Scientists are still researching what keeps lionfish in check in their native range. In the Caribbean and the Atlantic, they have no natural predators to keep their ballooning numbers in check.