Lionfish roundup an environmental coup


A dive shop and a restaurant have
teamed up to launch Cayman’s first lionfish round-up.

Ambassador Divers and Mezza are
inviting divers who are certified to cull lionfish by the Department of
Environment to join the tournament.

“What we are envisioning is that
we’ll hold a two-day event over a Saturday and Sunday and there will be prizes
for the largest fish and the most fish caught by an individual or team,” said
Jason Washington of Ambassador Divers.

A date has not yet been set for the
new tournament, but organisers say it is likely to happen within the next few
weeks and possibly as early as the end of this month.

Tony Spahija, manager of Mezza
restaurant on West Bay Road, said the fish caught during the two-day weekend
tournament in Cayman will be served up for free to invited guests from the
restaurant industry, hotels, government and others on the night of the first day
of fishing. Thereafter, lionfish will appear regularly on the Mezza menu.

“We want to introduce lionfish as a
dish for everyone,” said Mr. Spahija, who explained that a weigh-in on the
captured lionfish would likely take place in front of his restaurant.

“There are about 450 licensed
lionfish cullers – and another seven today – in Cayman,” he said on Friday,
adding that he hoped most would take part in the tournament.

The Department of Environment
certified seven staff members of Mezza on Friday morning, to prepare them to
catch and handle the fish that the restaurant plans to sell.

Bradley Johnson, a research officer
at the Department of Environment, gave the culling certification course at the
restaurant and brought with him some lionfish from the DoE freezer to show the
staff how to handle the fish they were preparing to cook for customers, without
spiking themselves. Even dead, lionfish spines can deliver a nasty injury.

Chef Greg Felix said eating lionfish
is entirely safe because the venom that can injure anyone touching the lionfish
is only in the fish’s spines, not in the flesh, and all the spines are
carefully removed in the kitchen.

The chef said he already had
several recipes planned, but he needs the larger lionfish for most recipes.
“The smaller ones don’t have as much flavour,” he said.

The organisers of the tournament
hope that other restaurants in Cayman will begin buying and serving lionfish,
creating a market that will spur more people to catch the fish and cut down on
the numbers threatening the Islands’ reefs.

Only divers who have lionfish
culling licences will be allowed to catch fish during the tournament, although
those who are not certified can take part as spotters or to buddy with
certified cullers, organisers said.

Mr. Washington said the tournament
would employ Department of Environment guidelines because they are established
and safe.

“We hope that this event will raise
awareness in Cayman and people will catch these fish and restaurants like Mezza
can serve lionfish,” he said.

The Marine Conservation Law, which
stipulates that divers cannot remove any living species from the water, was
amended last year to enable divers to catch lionfish with nets in an effort to
control the rapid increase of the population. During the tournament, divers can
only use nets to capture lionfish, said Mr. Johnson.

“We contacted colleagues on other
islands who have done similar tournaments and developed a set of guidelines
based on theirs,” he said.

Last year, the Bahamas, which has
also been hard hit by the invasive, venomous lionfish, held its first lionfish
tournament. Cayman has modified guidelines used in the Bahamas to come up with
local tournament rules and regulations.

“I think this is going to be a
great way to get people motivated to get out there and catch lionfish. People
get very motivated when they first attend the culling certification class and
for the first few weeks afterwards, but then a few weeks afterwards the enthusiasm
starts to die down,” Mr. Johnson said.

“The tournament and its competition
aspect is going to be a good incentive and motivator for people to get out
there and catch them and will also bring more attention to the issue,” he

For those who want to take part in
the tournament, but are not certified to cull lionfish, the next Department of
Environment certification course, which takes about an hour and a half to
complete, will be held on 25 August. 

Chef Feliz also hopes to give
lessons to people in how to prepare and cook lionfish. “They’re really
delicious,” he said.

Mr. Washington thinks there should
be no problem finding large lionfish for the chef. “Everyone who dives knows
where the big ones are,” he said, adding that on a recent dive he made, he saw
30 large lionfish at one site.

Since early 2008 when the first
lionfish were spotted in Little Cayman, the invasive species has spread rapidly
throughout the Cayman Islands.

The venomous fish have no natural
predators in the Caribbean. Researchers have found that a single lionfish can
wipe out nearly 80 per cent of small and juvenile fish populations on a patch
of coral reef in just five weeks. The fish can spawn 30,000 eggs a month.

To sign up for the lionfish
tournament or to get more information, contact Ambassador Divers on 743-5513


Department of Envi-ronment research officer James Gibb catches a lionfish on a Cayman reef.
Photo: Jason Washington