Cayman Islands Dealing With Invasive Lionfish by Serving It for Dinner

February 22, 2022

Scuba diving 80 toes underwater, time works nonlinearly. Seconds can stretch into eons, whereas an hour—and a full tank of fuel—can cross by in a flash. Unfold out in a horizontal line, combing the ocean ground, we transfer methodically, pausing to look beneath rocks and into crannies, trying to find invasive lionfish. After 20 minutes, our information provides us the sign for lionfish—fingers interlaced with fingers standing straight, then factors to a close-by coral head.

I exhale, descending just a few toes above the sandy backside, and click on document on my GoPro. After a morning Powerpoint class and an underwater follow session with water bottles tied to weights, this was our first actual go along with Hawaiian-sling spears, and I wished to seize the motion. We spot our first lionfish with its hallmark maroon physique, white stripes, lengthy dorsal spines, and fanned pectoral fins. Searching lionfish, it seems, is an train in endurance.

However I’m getting forward of myself. Let’s rewind just a few days…

Attending to the Cayman Islands

Flying to the Cayman Islands is straightforward. After connecting in Newark, I took a four-hour flight to Georgetown; quarter-hour after touchdown, I used to be in my rental automobile. I deliberate to spend per week with Ocean Frontiers, a world-class dive store recognized for its down-to-earth, household really feel.

Based mostly on the distant, east facet of the island, I used to be wanting ahead to a sluggish tempo of life and quite a lot of time underwater.

On the finish of my first day on the small resort, I used to be taken in like a stray canine by the dive instructors, sharing beers and buying and selling tales late into the night time. Even the servers on the restaurant adjoining to the dive store, Eage Rays, turned quick mates, providing to prepare dinner fish tacos if we caught any lionfish.

You learn that appropriately. Consuming lionfish has rapidly turn into a sustainable, scrumptious treatment to this nasty little drawback. Fast word: Lionfish are venomous, not toxic, so consuming them is solely protected (even uncooked) as soon as the spines are eliminated.

Scuba diving with shark
Andy Cochrane; shot on GoPro

How Lionfish acquired to the Cayman Islands

There isn’t a consensus on how lionfish made it to the Caribbean, however most imagine they got here from folks dumping private aquariums into the ocean, someday within the mid-90s. In the present day, lionfish roam the shoreline from Massachusetts to Brazil and dwell as deep as 1,000 toes. Initially from the Indo-Pacific, the species has turn into a significant issue for reef ecosystems around the globe as a result of they feast on juvenile fish, have few pure predators, reproduce quickly, and in the end decimate different populations.

Due to their relative isolation from the remainder of the Caribbean, the primary sighting of lionfish within the Cayman Islands wasn’t till 2008. Quickly after the Division of Setting (DOE) issued a cull, aiming to maintain their inhabitants beneath management. This was a far cry from how different islands handled the reef-wrecking fish. By 2010, many dive retailers throughout the three islands have been coaching each workers and guests to hunt them.

Whereas most laymen know the British territory as a tax haven, the dive world has lengthy thought of it a scuba mecca. Dive retailers supply an array of lessons, together with the essential PADI Open Water course, which lets you dive by yourself. For these eager to spearfish, turning into scuba licensed is a mandatory step towards participating within the cull. The recognition of diving on Cayman—together with a fleet of boats and 1000’s of divers—gave the federal government the sources to struggle lionfish head on.

As a result of inherent risks of looking a venomous fish, the DOE requires divers to take a lionfish class earlier than beginning to spear. For licensed scuba divers, this implies a day of each sensible and utilized classes. Whilst you technically don’t must kill a lionfish to efficiently graduate the category, we definitely wished to. Nevertheless, discovering them is tougher than it was a decade in the past—an excellent signal for the setting.

East finish locals say when culling began, a ship of divers might simply catch 200 lionfish in a two-tank dive. To place issues in perspective, our group caught 9 fish throughout a pair of dives. The explanation for the discrepancy is twofold: Lionfish have discovered to evade divers, sinking into small holes to remain out of view and, as proven within the DOE knowledge, their inhabitants has shrunk considerably from the early days of the cull.

Andy Cochrane; shot on GoPro

Turning a pervasive species right into a delicacy

Again to our underwater search get together: On my third day of diving, after attending to discover underwater tunnels, float alongside the world-famous wall, and swim with a handful of sharks, I used to be able to strive my luck at spearfishing. I loved the classroom classes on biology and historical past, gaining a greater understanding on why lionfish are a pervasive and critical menace. However like most, I used to be extra enthusiastic about getting within the water and really spearing.

Stan, one other member of our casual looking get together, gently kicked himself into place. I continued filming whereas Sam provided recommendation, all by way of improvised hand gestures. Communication isn’t simple underwater, particularly once you’re studying one thing new. Nevertheless, an skilled diver and avid hunter on land, Stan knew to not rush: line up the shot, exhale slowly, and hope for the most effective.

To be clear, spearguns aren’t allowed in Cayman. The spears we used have been two-foot-long, three-pronged poles, with a rubber band that you just stretch and launch to propel the spear and impale fish. It’s a fundamental instrument that isn’t at all times correct, so it’s crucial to get shut—six inches to a foot—whereas ensuring to not contact the venomous spines. This may increasingly sound easy, nevertheless it’s troublesome once you’re additionally coping with the surge of the ocean, your scuba gear, and your breath and buoyancy.

However the problem is what makes it pleasing, too. On his first shot, Stan hit the lionfish proper behind the cranium, pinning it on a rock. Even along with his masks on and low visibility, I might inform he was excited. He borrowed a second spear from Noticed to ensure it was securely hooked, then put it within the bucket. Our taco dinner—or at the very least a tasty appetizer—was secured. Within the subsequent half-hour, we’d take turns snagging a handful extra, earlier than ascending again to the boat.

What lionfish tastes like

Lionfish is scrumptious and excessive in omega-3 fatty acids, making it an ideal dish for an island that prides itself on culinary excellence. Many native cooks have caught on—together with Thomas Tennant of Tomfoodery, a hip restaurant in Camana Bay—and collectively have turned lionfish right into a delicacy. Tennant is an avid spear fisherman and works carefully with the Cayman United Lionfish League to help with lionfish tournaments and culling occasions.

These occasions assist herald quite a lot of lionfish for eating places, promote new dishes, and create a means for extra folks to get entangled within the invasive drawback.

Due to the federal government’s proactive actions a decade in the past, and a broad curiosity in spearfishing, Cayman is a hit story that different locations can study from. They’ve created a easy and delightful resolution—from ocean to desk, so to talk—for an issue that might have destroyed their reefs, that are an important a part of their tourism business.

Talking personally, I hope different locations take the time to study from it.

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