José Andrés Sinks his Teeth into Cayman’s Lionfish Invasion
“Now that’s what I’m talking about!” proclaimed José Andrés with pride as he held up his recent kill for the camera. The kind of hunt that the world-renowned celebrity chef had just taken part in is not one to be taken lightly. Such pursuits involve scuba diving to considerable depths to find a lionfish then impaling it with a Hawaiian Sling spear, before wrestling it into a container (all the time being careful not to get stabbed by its venomous spines). It has to be agreed that this activity comes with certain risks attached, so why, you might well ask, would anyone in their right mind do such a thing?
Mr. Andrés has put himself in this rather precarious situation in response to the ecological disaster caused by an invasion of red lionfish. Since their introduction to the western Atlantic in the mid 1980’s, the lionfish population has exploded. To briefly summarize the problem, lionfish eat and breed prolifically and have no natural predators in their new habitat. As such, the invaders’ insatiable appetite is putting yet more strain on the complex ocean ecosystems.
The opportunity for Mr. Andrés to join a lionfish cull in Grand Cayman came about while visiting the island for the prestigious Cayman Cook-out Festival. Prior to the event however, Mr. Andrés was no stranger to Grand Cayman, “I have been coming here for 19 years now. Actually I began scuba diving right here in the Cayman Islands and straight away, I fell in love with it.” Since his introduction to diving, Mr. Andrés’ passion for the underwater world has blossomed. As such, it’s no surprise that his views on ocean sustainability mirror his philanthropic approach to life. At every step, Mr. Andrés considers the implications of his actions with a view to improving the quality of people’s lives and the environment. A good example of this is in the work that he does with DC Central Kitchen, an organization that works to tackle hunger and create opportunities for the less wealthy through culinary training. Living with such awareness no doubt helped influence Time Magazine’s decision to list the award winning chef as one of their 100 most influential people. Mr. Andrés goes on to explain “I have been nurturing my love for the ocean but more importantly, learning not only how I can take good photos and have a good time underwater but also how I can do some good by hunting lionfish.”
Back on board Ambassador Divers boat “Juggernaut,” it was clear to see that Mr. Andrés was having a great time combining his love of the ocean with his passion for environmentalism. In the true fashion of such outings, the group of buddies laughed, joked and told stories about past dive trips. During the conversation between dives, Mr. Andrés voiced his opinion on other forms of hunting “I think everyone will agree it’s wrong to go on a safari to kill animals like elephants and other members of the animal kingdom. People shoot them and then take their photos with them. I believe that if these people want adventure then they should come to the Caribbean and hunt lionfish instead.”
The excited group of hunters with spears and containers soon started to raise the curiosity of the other divers on board. When asked about the lionfish issue, Ambassador Divers owner and lionfish culling activist Jason Washington explained, “It is not entirely certain how this invasive species made the journey from their home waters of the Indo-Pacific, but since arriving, their capability to release up to 30,000 eggs every few days has seen their numbers boom in recent years. Buoyant egg sacks are transported in the open water thus enabling them to be transported from one reef system to another. Their ability to spread like wildfire is frightening and even the diehard spear enthusiasts admit they are just trying to buy time while nature hopefully manages to find a solution. In the meantime, we need to create a demand for lionfish through the restaurant and consumer industries, to bring a financial incentive into the equation thus boosting culling activities“.
Mr. Andrés supports this sentiment “I think this is a win-win situation; as we create jobs, add extra income to local fishermen, help maintain the health of our reefs and keep eradicating these invasive species. Restaurants like mine can do a great job of bringing new species of fish that we badly need to keep the health of our oceans strong.” Mr. Andrés is not afraid to put his money where his mouth is; in addition to braving the ocean depths to do battle with the spiky invader, he has introduced some spectacular lionfish dishes to select restaurants “I put lionfish on the menu in my eclectic seafood fish restaurant Bazaar Mar. It is simply fried but I serve it whole (complete with spines, quite a sight to behold) and believe it or not, this has become number one on the menu. Right now we don’t have enough lionfish to meet demand.”
As one would imagine, in the word of fine dining it’s not as simple as just adding a new dish to the menu. “It needs to be done in a logical way, for example – it didn’t make a lot of sense in my Spanish restaurant in Washington, because lionfish somehow doesn’t belong with Spanish cooking.”
Support from the likes of chef Andrés is an incredible boost for those working on the various lionfish eradication and management projects throughout the Caribbean and surrounding areas. In order to promote culling, the restaurant trade needs to demand lionfish. For that to happen, consumers can help play their part by asking vendors for dishes made with this delicious white meat.
Since the issue broke loose and landed on the shores of Grand Cayman, resistance has started and been focussed through activities like the Cayman United Lionfish League (CULL) tournaments. In addition to hosting four regular lionfish spearfishing events each year, CULL has a mission to spread awareness throughout the region, firstly of the problem and secondly of the solution. Chef Andrés’ involvement is hugely beneficial to this piece of the puzzle as his endorsement shows the public that lionfish are not just safe to eat but they taste great too.
Progress is being made but there is still a long way to go. Chef Andrés warns us “We need to make sure that there are no restrictions anywhere that prevent people from spearing lionfish. If there are, then they need to be changed. I also think that dive companies in the Caribbean should be promoting lionfish hunting trips more.”
On the downside, lionfish are a serious problem and one that is now deeply rooted in these waters. The good news, however, is that as Chef Andrés has shown us the solutions on offer are great fun to be a part of. From shooting lionfish underwater (which is a wild ride in itself), to making money selling lionfish to restaurants, to my personal favorite which is enjoying the delicious dishes which are now being served in this part of the world. Considering that all we have to do to help save the ocean is to enjoy some great food, you’ll have to agree that being an environmentalist has never been so delicious.
“Eat ‘em to beat ‘em!”
The video below was shot in 2016 and features José Andrés alongside Chef Thomas Tennant and Jason Washington, owner of Ambassador Divers.
About the Author: Drew McArthur is a professional dive instructor and boat captain currently working at Divetech on Grand Cayman. Since his first dive over 20 years ago, he has found himself in all kinds of underwater environments from golf ponds on the side of a snowy Welsh mountain to the tropical paradise he has now become accustomed to. A fanatic of all things tech, one of the main things Drew loves about Grand Cayman is the accessibility of such premier dive sites. Check out Drew’s blog here.