Cayman restaurants have been caught off guard by a new regulation that could see fresh local lobster disappear from menus across the islands.
The Department of Environment confirmed this week that the regulations had been changed in 2016 to limit restaurants to a maximum of three lobsters per day. Any restaurant with more than three local lobsters on the premises on any given day would be in breach of the law, regardless of when they were caught.
Chefs and restaurant owners appear to be unaware of the legal change, however, and many acknowledged they may have been unwittingly breaking the new law. Numerous restaurant bosses said the restriction would make it impossible to keep local lobster on the menu.
Niels Schulze-Gattermann, who runs the Lobster Pot restaurant on the waterfront in George Town, said he was aware of restrictions for fishermen but not for restaurants. He said there had been no contact with the restaurant and he had not seen any announcement.
“This is the first time I heard of it,” he said, when contacted by the Cayman Compass.
“Of course, it will affect us. During the season, the expectation is that the Lobster Pot will have fresh local lobster. We already get complaints when we don’t have it.
“If the limit is now three, then we will have to go with it, but that is not enough to serve one table.”
Representatives from Tukka, The Wharf, Grand Old House, Hemingways and Luca all told the Compass they were unaware of the regulation until this week.
Most restaurateurs said they were not against the restriction if it was genuinely necessary to protect the species, even though it would impact their business.
John Bothwell, of the DoE, said the restriction was necessary because dwindling lobster populations could not support a commercial fishery. He said the demand for lobsters from restaurants was effectively leading to overfishing, despite the daily limits for individual fishermen, and may also be promoting poaching.
He said the DoE had advertised the change on its social media page and included information about it in media releases before the last two lobster seasons. A review of press releases received by the Cayman Compass in reference to lobster season for the past two years did not contain any specific reference to the possession or sale of lobster by restaurants. The release prior to the 2016 season did contain a bullet point reference among a list of other restrictions indicating, “In any one day, no one person may take or permit another person to take, purchase, receive, offer for sale, exchange or donation, or possess more than three lobster from Cayman waters.”
Mr. Bothwell acknowledged that many restaurants did seem to be genuinely unaware of the new law and said the department would seek to inform and educate businesses that were in violation of the rules before moving to enforcement.
“In our visits to restaurants this year in response to public reports we have realized that this rule, though in force since last lobster season and mentioned in our announcements of this lobster season less than two weeks ago, has taken many restaurateurs by surprise.”
He said an information campaign – targeted at restaurants – would be followed with stricter enforcement.
“We are fast approaching the point where there will have been fair notice to everyone and we will be able to switch the visits by our Conservation Officers from outreach to enforcement.”
The law does not allow for restaurants to stockpile lobster from one day to the next or for customers to bring their own catch to be cooked on site. It simply restricts the amount of local lobster on site to three.
Luciano De Riso, manager of the Wharf and Grand Old House, said he was unaware of the new rules.
“If that is the law then we will abide by it, of course, but it is strange to bring in this law and for no one to tell us anything about it.
“Tourists love it, locals love it. Lots of people go to the restaurant for fresh local seafood. Not everyone can catch the lobster themselves, so I do not expect to be able to serve local lobster at all as it will make for more upset customers than happy ones.”
He questioned how the law would be enforced, given that many restaurants stock and sell imported lobster.
Despite those concerns, Mr. De Riso said he supported the change if it was necessary for the survival of the species in Cayman.
“I think it’s great that they are taking this initiative to preserve the lobster population, I wish there was a better one, but I hope that they will be able to enforce it properly so that maybe in a couple of years we will be able to get it back as we used to.”
Roman Kleinrath, chef at Luca and Hemingways, said he was also unaware of the limitation. He said he supported the restriction and had backed off from serving local lobster anyway because of declining numbers and “sky high” prices.
“We saw the numbers and size were getting smaller every year. We do support Cayman Sea Sense and I think its a good thing.”
Ron Hargrave, who runs Tukka restaurant in East End, said the establishment would typically have 10 or 12 fresh lobster on hand on any given day. He said he would likely have to remove it from the menu in response to the new law, which he was informed of this week.
“Sadly, it makes absolutely no sense to have them as a menu option for visitors and locals to enjoy any more,” he said.