Pufferfish invasion! This swarm of pufferfish was caught on camera on the past September 2019, during the BRUV fieldwork in São Tomé. We are using BRUVs to survey marine biodiversity in the archipelago of São Tomé and Príncipe to understand species distributions and identify priority conservation areas. This activity is part of an initiative funded by the Blue Action Fund and Arcadia Fund, led by Fauna & Flora International, and implemented by the local organisations Fundação Príncipe, MARAPA and Oikos, with the objective of establishing a network of Marine Protected Areas in São Tomé and Príncipe. Every year, during Gravana season (June to September), large swarms of smooth puffers (Lagocephalus laeviagatus) invade São Tomé's coastal environment. The sharp teeth of these puffers give them their local name (coelho, "rabbit"), and are able to cut through nets, ropes and fishing lines, causing great economic losses amongst the Santomean artisanal fishers. In the past, this "rabbit" was not valued by the local fishers, as the large and highly toxic gallbladder of these animals quickly wastes the meat if it's not removed. It was not uncommon to find piles of smooth puffers rotting on the sand in the fishing communities of the south of São Tomé. This started to change with the decline of other fish species and the growing puffer population. Now, every year, during Gravana, fishers actively target them, coming back from the sea with the canoes loaded with pufferfish. Dozens of palaiês (fish traders) gather at the landing sites to gut the fish as quickly as possible. Canoes are filled with water, where the fish is soaked for an hour to clean it, then it is salted and sold all over the country. The reasons for the reported population growth of this fish are unknown. Some fishers hypothesise that the reduction in numbers of shark, the only supposed predator of this fish, might be causing the puffer populations to boom, displacing other species.
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