The lionfish, with its plume of spiky tentacles, is beautiful — but it’s an eco-disaster for the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, where it has depleted native fish populations and is killing the coral reefs.
Now the Grand Cayman Islands are on a mission to thin out its population, one bite at a time.
An invasive species believed to have been introduced to the area when saltwater aquarium enthusiasts turned some loose off the coast of Florida, the lionfish has spawned unchecked in the last decade or so because predators don’t see it as prey— unlike in its native waters, the Indo-Pacific region.
Its ability to proliferate is one of its strengths. Another is its venom, a neuromuscular toxin in the exterior coating of its dorsal spines that can cause pain, swelling or, in some cases, blistering in humans who are stung.
On a recent trip to the Grand Caymans, I met with environmental experts, dove with master divers and dined with top chefs to learn more about the fish.
Divers discovered the Caymans’ first two lionfish in 2008, and the government issued special spear user licenses for the sole purpose of hunting them.
Since then, the Caymans — which draws 1.7 million people with their beautiful beaches and some of the top diving spots in the world — have also been one of the best places to see, hunt, capture and eat lionfish.
It’s easy to find lionfish on menus in the Caymans. They serve it at most seafood restaurants, from the Lobster Pot in George Town to Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink in Camana Bay.
I went on four dives during my stay, culled about 10 fish and ate lionfish every day. I ate it raw in ceviche, pan-roasted, grilled, pan-fried … I did my part.
On my first dive, I went with Thomas Tennant, chef at Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink and one of the first chefs in Grand Cayman to prepare and serve lionfish. He explained that the venom poses no threat to humans when the fish is properly prepared.
Our team met there one night, and Tennant prepared a delicious meal with the fish we had speared earlier in the day.
We started with a lionfish ceviche with citrus avocado coconut jelly and red pepper scallion cilantro, and it was the best ceviche I’ve ever had. The taste and texture were like sashimi flounder. The cooked version, pan roasted with ackee seasoning pepper, was equally delicious — flakey, and similar in taste to snapper.
My companions all belonged to the Cayman United Lionfish League, a group that educates the community about lionfish. It held its first fishing tournament in 2010, when more than 500 lionfish were caught over two days. The highest pull for a tournament — almost 1,400 fish —was recorded in December of 2012.
Master diver Jason Washington, owner of Ambassador Divers, said lionfish have been sighted from Brazil to Newfoundland. He said they hide far down in the reefs, can grow to about 18 inches and weigh up to 3 pounds. Females lay about 30,000 eggs every three to four days.
“The egg sacks get fertilized in the deeper waters and then float to the top, and spread out wherever the ocean’s currents may take them, and the local fish here on the reefs don’t know what they are or what to do with them” he said.
The lionfish, which have not natural predator, are eating all the juvenile fish.
“The tournaments have made a difference in the reefs,” Washington continued. “During a dive, you used to drop in the water and see 15-20 lionfish immediately.”
Now, when you dive in the heavily culled and maintained areas, you may catch four or five.
I continued to eat lionfish and talk to people around the island at resorts, bars and nightclubs throughout my trip, yet there were some people who had never heard of the fish, and there were locals who had never even eaten it because of fears it might make them sick.
Washington said educating people about the invasive species is important and could save the reefs.
“It’s like mowing your lawn,” he said. “You have to keep doing it.”