The following is a serious situation that raises fundamental questions about the free market, regulations and the natural environment, but it’s still difficult to describe without a sprinkling of irony.
Here goes: In recent years, environmentalists have worked with restaurants to take invasive lionfish out of Cayman Islands waters and put them on local menus. With customers’ appetites whetted – both for the fish and for the feeling of conservation satisfaction – demand for lionfish has apparently exceeded local cullers’ ability to supply. Accordingly, although lionfish continue to wreak havoc on Cayman’s underwater ecosystem, restaurants are now importing lionfish (and, by the way, at half the cost of the local catch).
Some members of the local culling community are, understandably, perplexed. Importing lionfish to Cayman? What’s next? Green iguanas? Mosquitoes? Used car tires?
If there’s one “resource” that Cayman should already have more than enough of, it’s lionfish, right?
And yet, this is precisely where we find ourselves. On the one hand, some lionfish cullers are asking the National Conservation Council to consider banning lionfish imports, hoping that would lead to a rise in prices and provide further incentive for local people to get into the business of culling lionfish.
On the other hand, local chefs say the local cullers simply haven’t been able to provide a sufficient amount of lionfish for their restaurants. The chefs say they’ve never refused to buy local lionfish, at $4 to $6 per pound, even as they’ve been importing lionfish at a 50 percent discount.
Put another way, chefs (with the backing of some local cullers) say the issue isn’t a matter of cost, but of supply.
In terms of economics, our default position is to “let the market decide,” with the understanding that tinkering with regulations, embargoes and bans can and does lead to unintended consequences, the effects of which often overwhelm the initial purpose of the tinkering.
Speaking hypothetically, there is the possibility that banning lionfish imports will, as some local cullers desire, lead to an increase in both the price and supply of local lionfish. However, there is an equal if not greater possibility that banning lionfish imports will not boost local supply, and will instead compel local restaurants to take lionfish off the menu entirely, destroying the local market for consumption of the environmental pest.
In the absence of a ban on lionfish imports, consumers should realize that the lionfish on their plate may be a “ringer,” and a restaurant’s “feel-good” messaging (“Save Cayman’s reefs. Eat a lionfish.”) may be little more than a thin marketing ploy. Our hunch is that for the average consumer, the value of buying a lionfish dinner, even at a premium, isn’t intrinsic to the fish itself, but to the concomitant feeling that their dining option is making a difference.
All of the above being said, what is missing from the discussion of what’s happening in Cayman’s restaurants is what’s happening in Cayman’s reefs.
If cullers are going to argue that a lionfish import ban is necessary for the success of their efforts, they must first put forth evidence of success, or, at minimum, submit how they objectively measure progress toward that “success.”
Here are two figures to consider:
- The Cayman United Lionfish League claims the group has culled thousands of lionfish in recent years.
- A single female lionfish can spawn more than 2 million eggs each year.
As a large lionfish might say when encountering a small reef-dwelling creature … “Gulp!”