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Diver spots dreaded lionfish in Tobago reef

By Kim Boodram

The dreaded lionfish, a tropical water predator, has been spotted in Tobago.

The Institute of Marine Affairs (IMA) has received a report of a sighting in Flying Reef, bringing to reality months of concern of a possible invasion, which could devastate Tobago's coral reefs.

The sighting report was made by resident Keith Gibson, who holds a PhD in coastal zone management and has taught a fish ID course for commonly encountered fish in Tobago—which includes an awareness of what species to look out for, such as the lionfish.

Gibson was on a recreational dive with his wife, veterinarian Dr Adana Mahase-Gibson, and relatives when the sighting occurred. Mahase-Gibson is also a columnist with the Express.

The IMA said last Saturday the report was considered valid.

Gibson told the Sunday Express the fish was passive at the time of the sighting and was stationary over a hole in a coral formation.

Lionfish can grow up to 18 inches long and are beautiful, in a range of bright striped and variegated colours, but are voracious predators of small fish and crustaceans.

Native to the Indo-Pacific area, the Atlantic invasion already troubling waters in the northern Caribbean is thought to have originated with the accidental release of a number of privately-owned aquarium lionfish.

In January 2010, lionfish were spotted in neighbouring Venezuela.

The IMA's ongoing research continues to show that these lovely-but-deadly predators can significantly reduce the population of juvenile fish in a reef.

Lionfish have no natural predators in the Caribbean and can swallow a fish up to two-thirds of their own body length.

IMA coral reef researcher Jahson Alemu said last Saturday the institute previously collaborated with the Tobago House of Assembly (THA) to produce an awareness programme, alerting the sister island to the threat.

This included a series of posters to educate the public on what the fish looks like, what to do if the fish is spotted and who to contact.

"These posters have been extensively distributed to all marinas, dive operators, coastal establishments, schools, etc, in Trinidad and Tobago," Alemu said.

He is also currently assessing the reef fishes around Tobago, part of which includes looking for the presence of the lionfish.

"At this point, no one can say if it has had any impact on our reefs as yet," Alemu said.  

An IMA effort on marine invasives, spearheaded by Rosemarie Kishore, is also currently underway.

"A response plan does not currently exist, but I am the sure the IMA will assist as best as it can in the development of any plan," he said.

He has also warned that anyone spotting the fish is not to attempt to catch or contain it as the lionfish is also known for its venomous spines.

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