Lionfish are being imported from Central America to feed a growing demand for the dish in Cayman Islands restaurants.
Local chefs say they want to give the invasive predator a permanent place on the menu, but not enough fish are being culled locally to make that possible and some are buying fillets imported from Honduras.
The fact that demand is outstripping supply is a success for the culling movement, which created the market for lionfish in an “eat them to beat them” initiative to stem their unchecked population explosion in Cayman’s waters.
But the development could also damage local efforts to rid the reef of the environmental pest if chefs favor cheaper foreign imports over locally culled fish.
Ron Hargrave of Tukka restaurant in East End sees both sides of the equation. He said the whole purpose of putting lionfish on the menu in the first place was to incentivize culling in Cayman’s waters. But he believes the initial enthusiasm for catching lionfish, which are predominantly targeted by licensed scuba divers with pole spears, has tailed off and the fish are not always available to put on the menu.
“I think as Cayman chefs we have a responsibility to use lionfish from Cayman’s waters,” Mr. Hargrave said. “It doesn’t help the situation with them destroying the natural marine life if we are importing the product from another country.
“There is now a real demand for the fish because of the efforts made over several years. Now, all of a sudden, it has become popular. The tourists and the locals realize the effect the fish have on the environment and they are asking for lionfish.”
He said chefs need a steady supply and some are now taking fish from importers, who are bringing it in from Honduras at $6.50-a-pound per fillet. The price locally is $5-a-pound per whole fish – roughly double the cost once the inedible parts are removed.
“We’ve brought in a couple of pounds, not large quantities, but we have brought some in for six or seven restaurants,” a spokesman for wholesaler B&B Imports confirmed.
Mr. Hargrave, who says he has bought nearly 8,000 pounds of local lionfish since putting the dish on the menu three years ago, said he had “tested” the imported fish but is committed to buying local.
“I tested a couple of samples and I understand he has had no problem selling it locally. I think we need to buy locally first and foremost because we need to deal with the problem in Cayman’s waters, not in Honduras. Consumers won’t mind paying a bit more if they know they are getting local fish.”
But he warned that restaurants face a genuine dilemma over supply. He said there are no longer enough people out catching lionfish in Cayman’s waters and chefs are now largely reliant on the supply from Spinion Ltd. – a startup business which is on the water seven days a week culling.
One possible solution, he said, would be to require restaurants to state clearly to diners whether or not their lionfish had been caught locally.
Bradley Johnson, research officer with the Department of Environment, said he had been informed of concerns that Spinion was not always able to sell its catch locally because restaurants had already bought imported fish.
He said meeting the demand to make the fish a permanent fixture on island menus had been a perennial problem that he hoped the birth of the locally based culling company would help to resolve.
He said he understood that restaurants might need to supplement their supply but urged chefs to buy local when fish are available. A drop in supply locally could also be put down to dive shops limiting culling tours amid growing safety concerns over the threat posed by predators to cullers, Mr. Johnson added.
He suggested coordination was needed among dive shops, independent cullers, Spinion and restaurants to ensure local fish are the priority.
“A big part of the reason we have been so successful is because of the incentive that cullers have had to get rid of the fish and make a few bucks. If that’s taken away, it could have an effect on the fish being taken off the reef,” he said.
The Department of Environment has not been issuing new spears since at least October last year and has a waiting list of licensed cullers who do not have spears. There are around 400 spears in circulation on lease from the department. Mr. Johnson urged any cullers who aren’t using the spears to return them so they can be reissued.
Mark Orr, one of the founding members of the Cayman United Lionfish League, said it is encouraging that demand is growing.
“I do get calls fairly often from restaurants asking if we have lionfish, and we can’t always meet the demand, so I can see that if they want to keep it on the menu, they might have to find another supply.
“It would be a real problem, though, if it stopped people from taking fish from local waters. I’m not sure what the cost difference is, but personally I would be willing to pay a bit more if I knew it was a fresh local fish.”