The rapid spread of the predatory lionfish has become a great concern for fishers in the Caribbean as the Pacific Ocean natives have become the pirates of the Caribbean. The solution? Eat them.
Lionfish are native to coral reefs in the tropical waters of the South Pacific and Indian Oceans. But you don’t have to travel halfway around the world to see them.
This is now a fully established invasive species that threatens the well-being of coral reefs and other marine ecosystems in the Caribbean, including the commercially and recreationally important fishes that depend on them.
The common name “lionfish” refers to two closely-related and nearly indistinguishable species that are invasive in U.S. waters. Their populations have swelled dramatically in the past 15 years.
Lionfish are popular with aquarium keepers, so it is plausible that repeated escapes into the wild via aquarium releases are the cause for the invasion. Lionfish now inhabit reefs, wrecks, and other habitat types in the warm marine waters of the greater Atlantic.
Lionfish continue to expand at astonishing speeds and are harming native coral reef ecosystems in the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, and Caribbean.
Biologists suspect that lionfish populations have not yet peaked in the Gulf of Mexico, which means that their demand for native prey will continue to increase. Recent research has also revealed that lionfish can tolerate brackish coastal zones. Mangrove and estuarine habitats may also be at risk of invasion.
Adult lionfish are primarily fish-eaters and have very few predators outside of their home range. Researchers have discovered that a single lionfish residing on a coral reef can reduce recruitment of native reef fish by 79 percent.
Lionfish feed on prey normally consumed by snappers, groupers, and other commercially important native species. This means their presence could negatively affect the well-being of valuable commercial and recreational fisheries.
As lionfish populations grow, they put additional stress on coral reefs. For example, lionfish eat herbivores, and herbivores eat algae from coral reefs. Without herbivores, algal growth goes unchecked, which can be detrimental to the health of coral reefs.
The lionfish has poisonous tentacles, but the body of the fish is good to eat and chefs in the Cayman islands have developed recipes to serve the fish to locals and tourists, such as lionfish cerviche.
In Antigua and Barbuda, the annual Lionfish Derby has become more of a festival than a tournament. The multi-day celebration consists of lionfish education, culling training, lionfish hunts and a cook off. Schools are even integrated into the festivities through an educational lionfish art competition.
The event is eagerly anticipated by locals and is a major lure for tourists.
In Jamaica, PADI Scuba Dive Center and Charter Sport Fishing outfit, Lady G’Diver offers culling trips that conclude with a hearty lionfish feast and in 2021, Lady G’Diver hosted Jamaica’s first Lionfish Grand Prix.
In Dominica, government has given divers permission to cull lionfish in the Soufriere Scotts Head Marine Reserve, where hunting other marine life is forbidden. Dive operator, Salt Dive offers a Lionfish Hunt which features pole spearing instruction, a lesson on gutting and cleaning, followed by culinary instruction and consumption on the beach over an open flame and served with local sides.
Restaurants and eateries throughout the region have also joined the “eat ‘em to beat ‘em” trend, otherwise known as “invasivorism.”
Many chefs have become adept at removing lionfish spines, and using the succulent white flesh, commonly compared in flavor to snapper or grouper, in a variety of delicious ways. What’s more, the species has higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids than other commonly consumed Caribbean fish.
In Trinidad, Chef and owner of Sails Restaurant and Bar, Attala Maharaj describes the delicacy as “a spectacular tasting fish, as beautiful and as regal looking as it is on the outside, the flesh is the same… with a firm texture and a buttery taste.”
Barbadian Chef, Damian Leach describes the fish as “a super clean fish taste… My favorite way to use it is in raw applications; it’s beautiful as a lionfish poke or ceviche.”
In the Cayman Islands, Agua restaurant and lounge has featured Coconut Poached Lionfish with local pumpkin, callaloo, okra and plantain chips, and Chef Thomas Tennant, who opened Tomfoodery Kitchen in 2020, and continues to be a member of the Cayman United Lionfish League, uses the predator as the key ingredient in his Lionfish fritters.
At Fish by José Andrés, located at Atlantis, Paradise Island, Bahamas, a portion of all proceeds from lionfish dishes go toward The Atlantis Blue Project Foundation, an organization committed to marine conservation.
In 2019, Allen Susser, James Beard Award Winner and Consulting Chef at Jade Mountain Resort in St. Lucia, published Green Fig and Lionfish: Sustainable Caribbean Cooking, which features recipes such as Spicy Lionfish Tacos and Grilled Lionfish with Papaya, Pineapple and Kale. Susser refers to lionfish as “a responsible, sustainable option and, of course, a great dinner table conversation starter.”
As the lionfish trend takes off in the United States and other overseas markets, Caribbean divers and conservationists have begun to explore the potential for additional commercial opportunities.
Blue Ventures in Belize believes that there is a largely untapped commercial opportunity for the country’s 3000 small fishers, and they could be right. After all, Whole Foods stores in Florida sell lionfish for $11.99 per pound, which rounds up to $25 for a whole fish on average.
In the meantime, divers, consumers, and chefs in the Cayman Islands and throughout the Caribbean continue to put their money where their mouth is, helping to save the reefs— one bite at a time.
C.U.L.L. continues to hold four annual events and has removed tens of thousands of lionfish from Cayman’s waters. In 2017, Washington was inducted into the International Scuba Diving Hall of Fame in part due to his work in controlling the lionfish population in Cayman.
“The lionfish invasion poses a real threat to our already struggling reefs and the more attention we can shine on eating them as a solution the better,” says Washington. “I couldn’t be more proud of how my team successfully launched this destructive predator onto plates all over the world.”