Lionfish and chips anyone?

TOPLionfishLEAD

Lionfish catchers removed more than
500 of the invasive fish from Cayman’s waters in a culling tournament at the
weekend and got to sample what the spiny, venomous creatures tasted like as
fritters and chowder at a dinner Monday night.

Organisers of Cayman’s first
Lionfish Round Up said they were delighted with the turnout of more than 100
people taking part to catch the lionfish that are wreaking havoc on Cayman’s reefs
by ravenously devouring juvenile fish.

“We’re extremely pleased with the
turnout, we’re extremely pleased with the number of fish that were culled, and
we’re looking forward to the next Lionfish Round Up event,” said Jason
Washington of Ambassador Divers, who along with Mezza Restaurant’s Karl Ashmore
and the Department of Environment’s James Gibb, organised the event.

After carefully removing the
striped fishes’ spines, chef Greg Felix cooked up the massive catch for guests
who attended Monday night’s free dinner at Mezza. Diners were treated to
lionfish fritters, lionfish fillets in a light batter, creamy lionfish chowder
and Cayman-style whole lionfish.

Participants in the two-day event
held on Saturday and Sunday, 4 and 5 September, also got a taste of the fish
when the chef cooked some up during the weekend’s weigh-ins.

Initially, organisers said 499 of
the fish were caught during the tournament, but a recount on Monday established
that 509 had been culled.

Winners of the greatest number of
lionfish caught and the heaviest catch were a Cayman team called Run Tings,
whose members were Charles Ebanks, his 17-year-old niece Krystal Ebanks, Dean
Wood and Fred Myers. The team caught 112 fish, weighing a total of 8.4 kilos,
over the two days, according to the latest tally on Monday.

They were among only a handful of
Caymanians who took part in the event, which Mr. Ebanks said was a
disappointment.

“I’m surprised more Caymanians did
not support this. These fish are invading the reefs and killing the juvenile
fish… If we don’t have colourful fish on our reefs for people to see, people
will stop coming to these islands,” he said. “These invasive fish should not be
here. Everyone should donate one day of their weekend to get out in the water
and catch as many of these as they can.”

Mr. Ebanks, who works at Harbour
House Marina, said he got the team together on Saturday morning, started
looking for the fish off a boat in the North Sound about 1.30pm, and within
three hours caught 32 of the fish. They headed out earlier the next day and
made a much bigger haul, mostly in just 15 feet of water and by snorkelling.

“We got [dive] tanks from Sunset
House, but it was easier to catch the lionfish without them. I’d say we only
caught five or six while using the tanks,” Mr. Ebanks said.

Other participants went much deeper
– some to 150 feet – to get the fish off some of Cayman’s sea walls.

The prize for the biggest
individual lionfish, by length, went to team Tiger Shark for capturing a 9.5
inches-long fish, and Team Canada won a prize for the smallest fish which was
just 1.3 inches long.

Mr. Gibb, research officer at the
Department of Environment, said 25 people had taken part in a lionfish culling
certification course the day before the tournament so they could be qualified
to take part. Under the Marine Conservation Law, individuals must be certified
by the department before they can take lionfish from Cayman waters.
Non-professional divers can take lionfish using nets, while dive instructors
are now authorised to use spears to catch the fish.

“There were literally piles of
lionfish [at the weigh-in],” said Ambassador Diver’s Mr. Washington, who added
that if people were in any doubt about the impact the fish have on juvenile
reef fish, all they had to do was look in the containers at the weigh-in
outside Mezza.

“In the bottom of the containers,
you could see all these juvenile fish, including grouper,” he said. The remains
of rock hind and wrasse groupers were among the many kinds of young fish found.

Cayman Sea Sense, a local
organisation that advocates sustainable seafood programme for the Islands’
restaurants, turned out to support the lionfish tournament and the subsequent
cooking of the fish.

The group’s Sharon Whitmore and
Catherine Childs were among those who attended the fish dinner on Monday.
“We’re here to support the culling of lionfish and to promote people eating
lionfish,” said Ms Whitmore, whose group is trying to educate people to avoid
eating local grouper and other locally endangered fish.

The lionfish dishes got the
thumbs-up from diners, many of whom were trying the fish for the first time.
The flesh of the fish is white and light, with a delicate flavour.

Staff at Mezza were specially
trained by the Department of Environment’s Bradley Johnson to prepare and
handle the fish.

Mr. Ashmore, who along with Mr.
Washington, has been preparing for the tournament for six months, said such
events were important to protect Cayman’s marine environment and were a
“win-win” situation for participants, restaurants, dive operators and the
tourism industry of the Islands.

“We’re hoping that more restaurants
will get involved,” said Mr. Ashmore, who added that another restaurant would
host the next Lionfish Round Up, which could be held within the next two
months.

TOPLionfishSTORY

A pile of lionfish await weigh-in at Cayman’s first Lionfish Round Up tournament held at the weekend.
Photo: DOE
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