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Lionfish Number Hits 25K, Fish & Wildlife Says

The total number of lionfish caught across the territory has reached about 25,000. That’s according to William Coles, chief of environmental education at the Fish and Wildlife Division of Planning and Natural Resources.

“Some fishermen on St. Thomas are catching 100 a day in traps,” Coles said Wednesday.

Using Super Bowl Sunday in January or February as his benchmark, Coles said that the second lionfish was caught on that day in 2009. By Super Bowl Sunday in 2010, the number stood at 17. By this year’s Super Bowl Sunday, the number stood at 6,000. Since then, the number has risen to 25,000.

“It came in like a tidal wave,” Coles said.

He said he’s basing his numbers on reports from fishermen and divers as well as anecdotal evidence he termed rumors.

Karl Pytlik, who heads Caribbean Oceanic Restoration and Education efforts on St. John, disputed Coles’ numbers and said it was more like 3,500 across the territory. That number includes about 200 caught on St. John since lionfish first arrived in the island’s waters about a year ago.

“We’re finding more, but we’re actively removing them,” Pytlik said.

According to Pytlik, CORE members dive regularly to search specifically for lionfish.

Rafe Boulon, chief of resource management at V.I. National Park on St. John, said that the numbers of lionfish are on the increase in park waters.

“It’s a ‘forevermore’ problem,” he said.

However, Boulon said he’s seen only a few adult lionfish because Pytik and others are working hard to catch them before they mature.

Coles recently observed a phenomenon with the lionfish that he said seems worth exploring. He’s noticed that in areas where he’s cleaned out the lionfish, none have appeared, so he’s wondering if the warmer water found during the summer months is driving them to colder deeper waters.

“At water deeper than 40 feet, we’re seeing lots and lots of bigger ones,” he said.

Coles isn’t ready to give up on the fight to keep lionfish at bay. He said that the territory is doing much better than other locations. He said that in the Gulf of Mexico, an area 10 square feet in size could house 30 lionfish.

“And there’s nothing else there,” he said, referring to other fish.

However, he is seeing some degradation of the territory’s reefs as the lionfish devour the fish that keep the reefs clean of algae. He said he’s seen more algae growth as well as fewer fish.

As for serving up lionfish on a dinner plate, Coles said only if you buy fish from a trusted fisherman who knows the areas that are prone to ciguatera. He said that areas that don’t have fish with ciguatera are known by the territory’s commercial fishermen.

While Florida is pushing lionfish as a source of food, Coles said that state does not have a ciguatera issue.

Coles and Pytlik requested that people continue to report lionfish sightings. Reach Fish and Wildlife at 773-1082 or 643-0800 during non-business hours. Lionfish sighting forms are available online for St. Thomas and St. John and for St. Croix.

Reach CORE at 201-2341 on St. Thomas, 201-2340 on St. Croix and 201-2342 on St. John.

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