Imagine a fish species ranked among over fishing, bottom trawling, pollution, and climate change as one of the greatest threats to underwater ecosystems. The expansion of the lionfish in Caribbean waters is “one of the greatest threats of this century to warm temperate and tropical Atlantic reefs and associated habitats,” says National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientist James A. Morris, Jr. But in the region, fishermen, divers, and chefs have teamed up to rid the reefs of the invasive predator, one delicious bite at a time.
It all began on the three-island archipelago of the Cayman Islands.
Master diver, dive shop owner, underwater photographer, ocean enthusiast and avid conservationist, Jason Washington clearly remembers the day in 2008 when the first lion fish was spotted in Cayman waters.
“We had been looking out for them since 2007, when NOAA scientists informed the Cayman Islands Department of the Environment that the invasive fish were headed towards the islands in a current from the Northeast,” he recalls.
Washington immediately got to work, researching ways to control the venomous underwater carnivore with no known predators— and time was of the essence.
Lionfish, originally from the Indian and Pacific oceans, pose a major threat to the Caribbean’s underwater ecosystems, voraciously devouring more than 60 species of fish, small fish, eggs, crustaceans, and mollusks— up to half its body size— that are unfortunate enough to be in its path.
With the potential of just one fish to reduce young reef populations by up to 90% in just over a month, and with a maximum density of over 200 adults per acre, lionfish can consume more than 460,000 prey fish per acre per year. This is bad news for reefs, as lionfish prey eat algae that keeps corals clean. It’s also bad news from a financial perspective— according to journal, Nature, lionfish have cost the global economy nearly $3 trillion over the past 50-years.
Through his own research, Jason Washington would learn that the invasive lionfish, while venomous, was not poisonous, and had been a part of Pacific diets for many years. It would simply take the skilled removal of the spines that contained the venomous toxin. As a diver, this was not a major concern.
“Most fish have some kind of toxin in their fins,” he explains.
The next step would be to establish a team of cullers, and to find an adventurous chef who would be willing to turn a venomous predator into a mouth-watering delicacy.
Check. Check… and Check.
Washington would soon learn that locally based Chef Thomas Tennant, who was the Executive Chef at Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink in Grand Cayman, was known to use invasive species such as the Cayman green iguana as a source of fuel for his pizza oven. He had found his chef, and Tennant enthusiastically agreed to the challenge.
“No one on this side of the world ate lionfish before we started serving it in Cayman,” says Washington. It was the beginning of a culinary adventure— for good.
In 2010, Washington would spearhead a program that would reward cullers for getting lionfish off the reefs, and in September of that year, he would launch what he initially referred to as a “Lionfish Rodeo” at the La Mesa Dive Site in Grand Cayman.
The lionfish tournament would result in the cull of more than 500 lionfish, but what was even more impressive was the fact that at the end of the day, Tennant was able to cook all the fish for famished divers— and it received rave reviews.
The event generated a great deal of press and would lead to the launch of C.U.L.L., the Cayman United Lionfish League, that would hold culling-ary events four times a year.
That was it— a market had been created for the tiger-striped delicacy.
West Indian Chowder with Lionfish, lionfish sandwich, lionfish tea, lionfish escabeche (or escovitch), lionfish ceviche, lionfish tacos, roasted, grilled, fried… Tennant went wild… the possibilities were endless.
On a 2012 trip to the Cayman Islands, to host culinary event, Cayman Cookout with Anthony Bourdain and Eric Ripert, Michelin-starred chef, José Andrés would connect with Washington and Tennant who would tell him about the lionfish problem and show him how to catch and cook the venomous delicacy.
Not only was Andrés impressed, but he would quickly become an activist and began to serve the dish at his restaurants.
In an article that he penned in National Geographic in 2014, in which he depicted his Cayman lionfish experience, Andrés referred to the efforts of the C.U.L.L. team as “A whole effort to “eat ‘em to beat ‘em.”
“These guys are serious,” he said of Washington and Tennant. “They are doing more than just trapping lionfish, they are turning them into lunch.”
This was all the PR that the lionfish renegades needed— a Caribbean movement had effectively begun.
Fast forward eight years, and C.U.L.L. continues to hold four annual events each year and has removed tens of thousands of lionfish from Cayman’s waters. Washington’s dive shop, Ambassador Divers, offers a PADI certification for culling lionfish and in 2017, he was inducted into the International Scuba Diving Hall of Fame in recognition of his work in controlling the lionfish population in Cayman.
Lionfish derbies or tournaments are helping to reduce populations. Regionally, events, such as Barbados’ Divefest offer culls that culminate with a lionfish hunt and cookout.
And lionfish culling has also become a tourist attraction.
In Jamaica, PADI Scuba Dive Center and Charter Sport Fishing outfit, Lady G’Diver offers culling trips that conclude with a hearty lionfish feast and in 2021, Lady G’Diver hosted Jamaica’s first Lionfish Grand Prix.
In Dominica, government has given divers permission to hunt lionfish in the Soufriere Scotts Head Marine Reserve, where hunting other marine life is forbidden. Dive operator, Salt Dive offers a Lionfish Hunt which features pole spearing instruction, a lesson on gutting and cleaning after which divers participate in prepping fish to be cooked on the beach over an open flame and served with local sides.
Restaurants and eateries throughout the region have also joined the “eat ‘em to beat ‘em” trend, otherwise known as “invasivorism.”
In the kitchen, skilled chefs have become adept at removing spines, and neutralizing any remaining venom with the heat from cooking. The species has higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids than other commonly consumed Caribbean fishes and its succulent white flesh has been commonly compared in flavor to snapper or grouper.
Barbadian Chef, Damian Leach describes the fish as “a super clean fish taste… My favorite way to use it is in raw applications; it’s beautiful as a lionfish poke or ceviche.”
In Trinidad, Chef and owner of Sales Restaurant & Bar, Attala Maharaj describes the delicacy as “a spectacular tasting fish, as beautiful and as regal looking as it is on the outside, the flesh is the same. It’s sort of a cross between snapper and grouper, with a firm texture and a buttery taste.”
In the Cayman Islands, Agua restaurant and lounge has featured Coconut Poached Lionfish with local pumpkin, callaloo, okra and plantain chips, and Chef Thomas Tennant, who opened Tomfoodery Kitchen in 2020, and continues to be a member of the Cayman United Lionfish League, uses the predator as the key ingredient in his Lionfish fritters.
At José Andrés’ Atlantis, Paradise Island Bahamas restaurant, The Cove, a portion of all proceeds from lionfish dishes go toward The Atlantis Blue Project Foundation, an organization committed to marine conservation.
In 2019, Allen Susser, James Beard Award Winner and Consulting Chef at Jade Mountain Resort in St. Lucia, published Green Fig and Lionfish: Sustainable Caribbean Cooking, which features recipes such as Spicy Lionfish Tacos and Grilled Lionfish with Papaya, Pineapple and Kale. Susser refers to lionfish as “a responsible, sustainable option and, of course, a great dinner table conversation starter.”
Crafts people have also joined the crusade to rid the oceans of the carnivorous fish. In the Cayman Islands, artist Kelly Reineking of Mermaid’s Touch makes jewelry and accessories from the predatory species, using fins, tails, or dorsal spines in her unique locally made creations.
As the lionfish trend begins to take hold in the United States and other overseas markets, Caribbean divers and conservationists have begun to explore the potential for additional commercial opportunities.
Blue Ventures in Belize believes that there is a largely untapped commercial opportunity for the country’s 3000 small fishers, and they could be right. After all, Whole Foods stores in Florida sell lionfish for $11.99 per pound, which rounds up to $25 for a whole fish on average.
But, despite their explosion in Caribbean waters just over a decade ago, lionfish populations appear to be on the decline.
Some chefs have noticed an inconsistency in supply, causing many to take the marine predator off their menus.
“Unfortunately, I could not consistently source lionfish and had to take off the menu,” says Chef, Damian Leach. It makes me wonder; is our lionfish problem not as bad in Barbados as it is in the rest of the Caribbean? Do fisherman think it’s not worth the time involved in cleaning and removing the spines?”
A study reported in journal, Endangered Species Research found that “local removal efforts using volunteers are successful at significantly reducing the local density and biomass of invasive lionfish on small Caribbean islands,” while findings of a study in Trinidad and Tobago, as reported in journal Marine Pollution Bulletin, revealed that monthly culling efforts resulted in a 30% decline in lionfish biomass and a 27% decline in abundance of the fish.
Jason Washington has also observed that Cayman waters are not as populated with the invasive fish as they once were.
Whether the population decline is due to regional culling efforts, or other factors such as a flesh disease that was identified in lionfish in the Gulf of Mexico some years ago, there is no guarantee of whether these effects will be long-term or temporary. But given its reproductive capacity, complete elimination of the lionfish species is highly unlikely.
In the meantime, divers, consumers, and chefs continue to put their money where their mouth is, helping to save the reefs— one bite at a time.
“The lionfish invasion poses a real threat to our already struggling reefs and the more attention we can shine on eating them as a solution the better,” says Jason Washington. “I couldn’t be more proud of how my team successfully launched this destructive predator onto plates all over the world.”