Lionfish, and the Sweet Taste of Progress
I recently had the pleasure of eating an exquisite herb crusted lionfish with light seafood & vegetable broth while enjoying the ambiance of the Ritz-Carlton’s Royal Cayman Islands Ballroom. In spite of my location, the delicious meal was actually prepared by another big hitter on Grand Cayman’s fine dining scene – the Cracked Conch. I like to think that extra special effort had been put into the preparation of the dish as this was no ordinary evening, it was the 26th annual Culinary Awards of Excellence. OK, OK, it might sound like I’m bragging a bit here, but my point is that this prestigious event played host to 14 of the most accomplished restaurants the Cayman Islands have to offer, and each one had to use lionfish in their second course. This shows great progress in the campaign to get the venomous pest on as many menus as possible, and a real win for those who want to eat ‘em to beat ‘em!
When lionfish started to appear in the Cayman Islands in 2008, the arrival was met with concern. Many people on the Cayman Islands had already heard of the environmental disaster emerging from Florida. In response to these concerns, people started to do what they could to supress the population explosion. One such person was Jason Washington from Ambassador Divers. Upon recognizing the need to concentrate the efforts of spearfishing divers on the destructive lionfish, he decided to arrange a lionfish culling tournament. Washington recalls,
“I put together the first tournament at Meza in 2010. Back then, the fish we were catching were so small that it took the kitchen staff 48 hours to cut up the meat from the haul of 500+ lionfish.”
Nowadays, catching lionfish is laborious to say the least, but back then then the Department of Environment (DoE) hadn’t yet permitted lionfish culling on scuba with spears. As such, the venom spiked invaders had to be removed from the reef using a complex process of nets and dry bags.
In spite of the fiddly process of catching and preparing the fish, the original crew of people involved in the activity were persistent in making it work. Assisted by James Gibb from the DoE, Washington imposed the challenge upon himself to make the tournament a regular affair.
As the lionfish population continued to explode, more people came to realize the threat they brought with them. At the same time, the regular tournaments were picking up exposure as being a fun way of helping counteract the problem with direct action. Forces on both sides continued to gain strength and numbers.
After the 7th tournament, Washington was struggling to handle the beast he had created alone, he needed help. Fortunately for him, regular tournament attendees Mark Orr (DoE), John Ferguson & Katie O’Neil were happy to join forces. It was this unification that marked the birth of the Cayman United Lionfish League (CULL). In among the ensuing tournaments and weight ins, CULL got together and tried to figure out how they could work smarter as well as harder. The lionfish were now like a plague that were to be found everywhere on Cayman’s otherwise pristine reefs. CULL had to raise the stakes and get the wider community on board, to achieve this they set out the following mission:
To first educate the public about the way they can do their part to preserve our precious reef in Cayman by eating lionfish, and secondly, encourage restaurants to offer locally culled lionfish dishes on their menus. It’s a tasty solution to the problem.
Early CULL member, chef Thomas Tennant explains “We had to create a demand for lionfish, once that happened then the supply would follow.” As such, Tennant was one of the first chefs on the island to accept the challenge of introducing this newcomer to his menu. Fast forward to the present day. CULL are on the brink of hosting their 20th island wide lionfish culling tournament. Using sponsorship from local businesses, these regular events now have a prize pot of $3,200CI each tournament and regularly remove thousands of fish from the reefs of Grand Cayman. Every few months kitchens are stocked with enough tasty meat to continue developing their menu and providing delicious dishes for the public to enjoy.
These tournaments, which have included cook off competitions between restaurants, have been exceptionally effective in mobilizing the local dive community into culling lionfish. They have also helped raise awareness of the issue to those who don’t spend much time in the water. In line with CULL’s mission, the tournaments have bolstered the fish’s position on a range of menus around the island.
This is a fantastic achievement, but CULL can’t take all the credit. It has to be accepted that diving to 100’ and wrestling spikey venomous beasties into a bucket using a three pronged spear is a little more risk than many are prepared to accept. Those who take to the water to shoot lionfish, whether related to CULL or not, are owed a huge thanks. However, not only is the success attributed to the people who give their time to hunt, it is also to the restaurant owners who accept the challenge of sourcing and preparing the fish. Last but by no means the least, without the people who vote with their dollars and eat the delicate, tasty white meat, there would be much less incentive for divers to cull.
Meanwhile, back at the Ritz, Alan Markoff from Slow Food Cayman took the time to explain to the happily indulging crowd how CULL has assisted in the fight against lionfish overpopulation. Markoff went on to say:
“We should thank CULL and the government for doing their part in preventing the population from exploding out of control, and now it’s time that you did your part. If you don’t eat lionfish then chefs won’t buy it meaning less motivation for people to remove lionfish from the reefs.”
For many at the tables who were there that night, this was their first time eating lionfish so Markoff aptly went on to reassure them that “not only are lionfish safe to eat, they are also delicious.”
Following the showing of a short video of some lionfish cullers in action, Markoff handed over the stage to DoE & CULL member Mark Orr for a brief synopsis of the issue. Orr started by explaining that “No matter how cute they look, lionfish are a serious threat, the only way to kill these guys is by diving down and catching them.”
Once mark had wrapped up by thanking the invaluable efforts of the fishing, diving and other communities on island, it was time for hostess Vicki Wheaton to return to the stage. Perhaps it was her witty opening line “I always thought I was beautiful and dangerous too, but no one is trying to catch me!” or maybe it was the wine that by this time was flowing plentifully, either way, the second half of the evening started to give way to a more party kind of celebration. People from each table started to mingle and as such I thought I’d take the opportunity to see what other tables were eating.
Luca had put together a fantastic looking lionfish and jumbo lump crab cake in bread crust, squid ink risotto, basil oil & bell pepper which apparently tasted out of this world. I also must confess to being a little jealous at having missed out on the tandoori marinated lionfish with tapioca chips and mango mint chutney made by the Blue Cilantro. The good news on that score is that the Blue Cilantro are now one of the recent additions to restaurants on the island who want to offer lionfish dishes regularly.
As I ambled from table to table I considered how lionfish have gone from something that people would never consider eating to where award winning chefs are currently crafting them into fine examples of global cuisine. For me, apart from the fine food and wine, the evening gave some fascinating perspective on how people can do their bit for the greater good of the environment. Also, how small, difficult steps can turn in to giant, confident strides.
Creating significant change can be a tough thing to do. It takes determination, perseverance and ambition. Tough as it is, when the change that you’ve been pushing for starts to happen and you get to see the results of your efforts, it can be one of life’s most satisfying pleasures. Though of course the problem is far from solved and there is still a long way to go, this event and others like it give an indication of progress. People are pulling together and change is happening. Whether culling, spotting, cooking or simply eating these pesky critters, anyone who is involved in the efforts to remove them from the reef is in some way helping nature fight back against the stresses that modern life has imposed upon her. Thankfully, doing your bit for the environment has never tasted so good.
Eat ‘em to beat ‘em!
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.