Bumper lionfish cull during Earth Month

Back on shore, the cullers show off their successful catch.

A group of determined divers recently did their part for Earth Month in the waters off the West Bay coast, offering up their skills in the fight against the invasive lionfish.

Their efforts on April 23 netted 129 fish, with a combined weight tipping the scales at nearly 60 pounds.

The culling event was organized by district dive shop Divetech, which operates out of Lighthouse Point.

“Lionfish breed voraciously, and they are able to spread far and wide as their eggs float on the surface,” noted Divetech Reservations Manager Emma Nicholsby.

“They are voracious eaters, and the problem is that they eat the juvenile fish that act as reef cleaners, the fish that play a huge role in reef health by eating algae off the corals and ensure the health of the reefs.”

The “reef grazers” being targeted by lionfish have been identified in recent scientific studies, including a landmark study released in 2014 by the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the United Nations Environment Programme, as a key factor in the decline of coral reefs in the Caribbean.

The cullers on their boat.
The cullers on their boat.

The report, “Status and Trends of Caribbean Coral Reefs: 1970-2012” analyzed 35,000 surveys across the Caribbean showing that the region’s corals have declined by more than 50 percent, and stressing the importance of reef cleaners in making reefs more resilient to stresses including climate change.

“When the lionfish problem was identified, Cayman jumped very quickly on the issue,” said Ms. Nicholsby.

“Out diving, you don’t see a lot of lionfish these days, considering, especially in areas that are regularly culled, because of that.”

Ms. Nicholsby said that the Divetech cull was a boat dive as the aim was to target areas that had not received much attention recently.

“For instance, after a few months of people not diving the north wall very often due to the rough weather over the winter, there might be quite a few out there,” she said.

She also noted that besides being aggressive hunters, the lionfish are being spotted at depth, deeper than most divers go, allowing them to evade capture.

The fish that are successfully captured on culls are kept for human consumption rather than left in the water.

A bounty of lionfish on its way to diners at Vivo restaurant.
A bounty of lionfish on its way to diners at Vivo restaurant.

Ms. Nicholsby explained the idea is to prevent local fish populations from getting used to being fed lionfish collected during culls.

“The restaurant onsite at Lighthouse Point, Vivo, serves the lionfish to customers, so it’s definitely not going to waste,” noted Ms. Nicholsby.

“Really, it’s probably the greenest, most sustainable fish you can eat in Cayman.”

Vivo owner Michele Zama enthusiastically described the lionfish bounty the restaurant received over the weekend.

The restaurant prides itself on its sustainability, featuring many locally sourced ingredients in its dishes, which for the most part are vegan or vegetarian, with lionfish being one notable exception.

“This was a huge amount of fish to get; we have been serving lionfish nonstop ever since we got it in on Saturday,” said Mr. Zama.

“We are very conscientious about where our ingredients come from and also about not wasting food. With all this lionfish we have, we are right now trying to come up with dishes we can serve now while it’s still fresh, and also will be potentially making soup which we could freeze, so we can ensure nothing goes to waste.”

Vivo’s current offerings include lionfish curry, lionfish fillet and pan-seared lionfish sandwiches.

“It really is a delicious fish, and we are grateful we are able to serve it knowing we are doing a good thing for the planet,” said Mr. Zama.

Ms. Nicholsby noted there was no charge for the dive, as is the case for most lionfish culls.

“We do culls quite often, including corporate events, but this one was a special one for Earth Month,” she said, noting participants could either act as spotters or cullers.

“You do need to take a course to get a culling licence, which we actually offer at Divetech,” she said. “You must also apply again for a spear license, to harpoon the fish.”

The fish are collected in buckets, then put on ice, before being transformed into delicious fare by Vivo.

“We have been culling the fish for about eight years now, and this is definitely an ongoing problem here,” said Ms. Nicholsby.

“Through culls like these across Cayman, however we do seem to be keeping the lionfish population in check, which is encouraging.”