Barefoot and the lion fish

It’s often said that which is
beautiful is often deadly.

You’re most likely to hear that
epithet uttered more often than not by Bond characters, but  in the case of the red lion fish it actually
rings true.

The invasive creature which breeds
and eats rapaciously can have a devastating effect on local flora and fauna,
disrupting the delicate ecosystem of the coral reefs. That’s the lion fish, not
James Bond, by the way.

The lion fish is now present in
Cayman waters and is threatening the diverse and gorgeous marine life of this
special place on earth. People are putting forward ideas as to how to not just
control but combat and eradicate what amounts to a very pretty parasite (which
is not the name of a Bond character, yet).

One proactive and fun conservation
effort takes place between 11 and 21 November at Pirates Week 2010. Teams of
divers and dive companies are getting together for a competitive lion fish
hunt, co-ordinated by Reef Management and other dive providers of Cayman.

Each Heritage Day will have its own
daily hunt as the sea – from shallows to the deep – is laid out in a grid
system from which competitors identify lion fish for licensed divers to
capture. As these fish also come relatively close to the shore, snorkelers can
take part and all parts of the community can participate including kids from
the Sunrise school. At the end of each day there’s a weigh-in and at the end of
the week is scheduled the grand final and a big ol’ barbecue. Luckily, the lion
fish has firm and delicious flesh and makes for good eats.

The concept of a lion fish hunt is
not a new one. The Bahamas have suffered from the invasion problem for longer
than Cayman, which has provided the opportunity for at least one celebrated
local resident to show off his hunting prowess.

“Lion fish have invaded the northern
Bahamas which depends on tourism and fishing for their economy,” explains
Barefoot Man, who isn’t a Bond character either but probably should be.

“In 2009 the first Lion Fish Derby
was held on Green Turtle Cay , Abaco Bahamas – 
over 1,400 lion fish met their fate , the 2010 number decreased to 941.
Some say that’s a good sign but I am unconvinced of that opinion.”

Indeed, Barefoot Man, a keen spear
fisherman, has been visiting the Abaco Islands for nearly 40 years. He
considers The Bahamas his second home and visits at least five times a year,
twice to perform his well-observed and twinkle-eyed songs to the locals. He is in
a unique position to talk about the changing seascape as a result.

“Year after year I  visit 
the same familiar rocks, crevices and shoals to hunt lobster, grouper
and snapper.  About 5 years ago I first
noticed the beautiful fish hanging out at my favourite fishing spots,  their numbers increased with every trip – and
so did the size of the lion fish.

“Learning of their negative impacting
on native juvenile fish my friends and I started shooting and eating the
venomous creature.  And good eating they
are… closest thing I compare it to would be the local Hog Fish or a Rooster
Fish .  They are noxious to touch but a
delicacy – in my opinion – to eat,” reveals the songwriter.

The 2009 derby was the first one held
in the Bahamas, he points out, but as the hunts took place largely around Green
Turtle, No Name and Manjack Cays, those are the areas in which most yachts,
rental boats and local fishermen base themselves. As a result of all the spear
fishing in the area, says Barefoot, it’s inevitable that local numbers would
drop off.

“I usually head  50 to 
60 miles north of Green Turtle in my boat ,  to the more remote areas of Abaco where the
fishing is better and the fish are bigger. One of my favourite spear fishing
spots is the wreck of a twin engine private aircraft that crashed off Spanish
Cay in about 30 feet of water.  It’s a
super spot for lobster and snapper.

“On my last trip in July to
August  the rusted plane looked as if it
had been decorated with hundreds of starry Christmas ornaments. The venomous spines
and stripes  of  the abundant Lionfish ornamented the old
aircraft from tail to propeller. I had been to the same spot a year earlier and
only noticed a few lion fish.  My friends
and I had a turkey shoot , bagging about 40 fish  and about the same amount made an escape.
Later that evening we had a fish fry and lots of Kalick beer,” notes the
Caymanian music legend.

Indeed, one of Barefoot’s most
popular songs since then was penned for a Bahamian concert – the Lion Fish
Song, which is sung to the melody of The Lion Sleeps Tonight. He said he
figured the tune would get some laughs – and of course it did.

Back on Cayman, the lionfish is
increasing in numbers; Barefoot says he’s noticed them near his residence in
Frank Sound. But he won’t be spearing them; a hunting license is required at
present and spear fishing is not allowed.

“Department of Environment rules say
you must  first go through training, get
a license, then catch them in a net , then turn them over to the department
which then takes possession of the fish that are caught and kills them, using a
combination of eugenol – or clove oil – alcohol, and sea water.  With no disrespect towards the DOE and their
staff intended,   I see no logic with
this  policy. It’s like sterilizing the
needle before giving a convict a lethal injection .

“ I say – If you have a valid legal
spear gun  license …  let us shoot the damn thing and then eat it.”

Cayman palates are already developing
a taste; when the great lionfish hunt gets underway the invasive species might
yet find its way onto many a menu even as the seas are being cleaned of its
delightful, delicious, and deadly, influence.

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