Some lionfish cullers are calling for a ban on the import of the invasive fish to force restaurants in the Cayman Islands to buy local.
The move is opposed by local chefs, who say they need to buffer the dwindling local supply with imported fillets in order to keep lionfish on the menus and the issue in the public eye.
The Cayman United Lionfish League, which organizes regular culling tournaments and has collectively culled thousands of lionfish, has written to the National Conservation Council asking it to consider a ban on imports.
In a letter to the council, CULL member Joey Avary wrote, “When restaurants import lionfish from other jurisdictions, it artificially depresses the market price of the fish.
“CULL believes if the Cayman Islands would enact a ban on the importation of lionfish, the market price for locally culled lionfish would rise. This would boost the financial incentive for divers and snorkelers to undertake the risks inherent in hunting these invasive pests.”
Lionfish currently sell for around $4 to $6 per pound in the Cayman Islands.
Speaking to the Cayman Compass, Mr. Avary said he believes a small rise in price would create the additional economic incentive for people to make a business out of targeting the species for sale locally.
“We want to see local people catching local lionfish for local restaurants,” he said. “We have to target our own reefs first. It would be great if we could get to the point where rather than looking at conch and seeing dollar signs, people are going after lionfish instead.”
He acknowledged that not everyone would support the move and that there was some debate even within the culling community about the issue, but he said his letter to the Conservation Council reflected the majority view among CULL’s membership.
Ron Hargrave, who runs Tukka restaurant in East End and who was one of the first chefs to put lionfish on the menu, said a ban on imports would be counterproductive.
He said cullers were simply not supplying enough lionfish to make it a viable option for restaurants without additional imports.
“We’ve been doing this for seven years and we have never refused to buy a locally caught lionfish. Divers are not seeing as many lionfish here as they used to, and we are not getting the same supply. We can’t just take it on and off the menu.”
He said the $5-a-head price in Cayman is already twice the price of fillets imported from elsewhere in the region.
Some cullers agree that imports are necessary.
Steve Broadbelt, owner of Ocean Frontiers Dive Shop, which has culled 15,000 lionfish locally since the invasion began, said, “I have never been turned away at a restaurant in the Cayman Islands with a locally caught lionfish.”
He said Cayman’s culling efforts have been extremely successful, and far fewer lionfish are being seen on the islands’ reefs than was the case three years ago.
“It is still important that we keep culling. They are like weeds in a garden. You can’t let up or they will come back. But if you ban imports and restaurants start taking them off the menu, then the customers will lose interest and we will have a bigger problem.”
He added that importing lionfish from the Caribbean region actually helps the Cayman Islands in the long run.
“We are getting on top of the problem on our own reefs, but this is a regional problem that needs a regional solution.
“If we are buying them from Honduras and that encourages people in Roatan to cull more, then that is going to help us too. The lionfish we see on our reefs don’t come here on Cayman Airways, they come as larva on ocean currents from all over the region.
“If we don’t have effective culling all over the Caribbean, they will keep coming back.”