Although to the rest of the Caribbean population, the mere mention of the word ‘lionfish’ may bring about intense looks of animosity or sudden shudders of fear, in the Grand Cayman Islands, the reaction ranges from culinary cravings to gleeful island pride.
But the Caymanites haven’t always had such a sunny disposition toward these cantankerous Indo-Pacific fish that have only recently weaseled their way to the warm waters of the Americas (thanks to probable pet releases in Florida). Aside from being incredibly venomous, lionfish have been terrorizing islands up and down the Caribbean by destroying sensitive reef ecosystems and virtually wiping out entire populations of necessary reef fish.
A veracious eater, the lionfish has moved in to these new reefs and began picking away at the juvenile fish that maintain the reef. Without these small grazers, the reefs suffer, causing a domino effect up the food chain.
“There are many issues here,” says Jason Washington, resident for more than 16 years in the Grand Cayman Islands, owner of Ambassador Divers Grand Cayman, and a founding member of Cayman United Lionfish League (CULL). “The first and most basic is that they have no known natural predators other than man. The second is their ability to procreate at an astonishing speed. Females can produce as many as 30,000 eggs every four days. We saw our first lionfish on Grand Cayman in October of 2008, and since then the population has exploded.”
With no known aquatic predators, these tawdry red-and-white zebra striped pests have been known to wipe out upwards of 90 percent of a reef, causing a real problem lurking beneath such a natural paradise.
Finding his culling
Fully supported and equipped by the marine conservation board and the Department of Education on the island, Washington and his fellow Cay-men set out to design a program they knew would help save their precious reefs. But they never dreamed things would turn out as successfully as they have.
While most islands and coastal cities have taken to culling (i.e., a time consuming and dangerous process to remove the lionfish from the water that involves a local dive master chasing a living lionfish into a clear acrylic net while scuba diving, then chasing the fish out of the net into a capture bag), the people of the Cayman Islands weren’t satisfied by the inefficient process and wasteful practices this method produced. To get more people involved in the culling, Washington, along with the marine conservation board, began a spearing program where tourists and locals could obtain a license and a government issued spear to safely and efficiently hunt these predators. But Washington still knew that one thing had to come first.
A sustainable (and enticing) way to make use of the culled fish.
“For me this was simple; create a demand for the fish by serving it in local restaurants,” he says. “I approached several before I found someone who ‘got it.’ That someone was Thomas Tennant from Michael’s Genuine Food and Drink. He immediately came on board, helping us organize local fishing tournaments where we fed our catch to the public for free. This quickly raised the level of awareness, not only was hunting lionfish good for the environment, it was delicious!”
A tasty problem