An East End restaurant has recently reached an impressive milestone as a lionfish dining destination.

Efforts to tackle the invasive lionfish problem headed up by owner and head chef Ron Hargrave of Tukka restaurant have made the establishment a top choice for diners interested in trying the delicious fish.

“It’s my way of doing what I can to protect our reefs,” said Mr. Hargrave.

Recently the restaurant passed the 12,500 pound mark for the amount of local lionfish purchased from local licensed cullers.

“We actually have gotten to the extent that the on-island supply of lionfish is not able to meet demand anymore,” said the chef.

“We’ve brought in 3,000 or so pounds of frozen lionfish from Honduras to supplement our supply.”

Tukka’s numerous lionfish menu options draw diners from across the island looking for a delicious and eco-friendly meal.

“Definitely the most popular dishes with customers are the lionfish ceviche and the lionfish tacos,” said Mr. Hargrave.

“My personal favorite, though is a pan-fried whole lionfish, lightly seasoned and floured, served with tartar sauce, escovitch and burnt lemon.”

Mr. Hargrave was one of Cayman’s lionfish purveying pioneers.

“About eight or nine years ago, lionfish were first acknowledged as a problem,” noted Mr. Hargrave.

Lionfish are striking to look at but pose a threat to Cayman's reefs.
Lionfish are striking to look at but pose a threat to Cayman’s reefs.

That’s because the fish, native to the Pacific, are voracious eaters of juvenile reef fish, preying on the small herbivores like parrotfish, surgeonfish and damselfish which provide essential algae “grazing’ roles that keep Cayman’s reefs healthy. As lionfish have no known natural predators in the Caribbean and given that adult females are able to produce up to 2 million eggs a year, culling has emerged as a good option for controlling their population locally.

“Back then, the idea for serving lionfish came about when a bunch of us got together, and said we’ve got to do something about this problem,” recalled Mr. Hargrave.

“We teamed up with Ambassador Divers, and we served it at Mezza restaurant. That’s how I got involved, through fellow divers and doing a cull, and just kept it going.”

Having relocated to East End to open Tukka six years ago, Mr. Hargrave says the location is ideal for sourcing local lionfish.

“Dive operators Ocean Frontiers and Tortuga Divers bring me a lot of lionfish,” he said.

“When we decided to purchase local lionfish, we told everyone we would pay $5 a pound, and have never said no to anyone bringing some to our back door.

“All we ask is that the fish are de-spined, for the safety of the people who have to handle the catch.”

He noted that decision was made due to the danger posed by the venom contained in the fish’s spines.

“On a day when our chefs are handling 200 to 300 pounds of lionfish that are delivered to the doorstep, being careful becomes extremely difficult after a while. One slip, and you are off to the hospital.”

Mr. Hargrave says he bases his estimate of how much lionfish the restaurant has gone through on the amounts bought from local dive shops.

“Furthermore, big contributors are Mark Foreman and Maria Yapelli who run Spinion Exports Ltd., a lionfish culling business,” said Mr. Hargrave.

“I would say about 50 percent of my lionfish comes from Spinion.”

Settled in to life in East End and never shy to test out an adventurous dish, Mr. Hargrave has also experimented with serving up green iguana, another invasive species in Cayman.

“Iguana is the next big thing,” he said. “We have pretty much put a sustainable dent in the lionfish population, given that we have to supplement our local catch.”