Taking on the Invasive Lionfish in the Waters off Grand Cayman

Photo by Elliott Jessup

Photo by Elliott Jessup

 

It’s not surprising to meet an unusual cast of characters at a diving lodge, especially an ecofriendly one, but as we chat that evening, occasionally looking up from computer screens, the three divers tell me they are spearing lionfish and emptying out the contents IMG_3805of their stomachs. The culling part makes sense, many divers are gleefully bringing up lionfish on the end of their spears, selling them to local restaurants, or filleting them on their own. They are beautiful but invasive fish, with no natural predators, feasting on indigenous reef fish and doing an untold amount of damage in the Caribbean. But tearing out their guts to take a look? I hadn’t heard that one before. When I ask why they tell me, “We need to know what they’re eating.” So, they’re curious about their food—and I wonder why.

Lionglove

Photo by Elliott Jessup

I discover that the team is from the California Academy of Sciences, and their research will reveal if the culling efforts by divers to clear the invaders from the reef is working. The team wants to know if the lions are feeding in shallow waters, or deeper down the reef walls. If the fish can easily change depth, they can avoid the culling efforts done in shallow waters. They want to know if the larger fish they see in deeper waters move up to shallow areas, or stay at lower depths and breed there.

Elliott Jessup the Diving Safety member of the team is the one who documents their IMG_3877underwater adventures, and has the wonderful title of “explorer.” His experience with deep water diving began when he trained in Egypt’s Red Sea. Now managing the highly specialized diving equipment—the closed circuit re-breathing units—he explains how they can plunge much lower than average recreational divers. They are collecting lionfish at depths ranging from 200 to 400 feet.

I ask the ichthyologist on the team Luiz Rocha, why he wants to know what the lions are eating. “We need to know the species of fish,” he tells me. The prey fish the invaders are going after will need some protection. Know what fish they are eating will also give them information about where they are feeding.

These science divers are also taking DNA samples of the fish back to the lab in California. Lionfish most likely arrived in the Caribbean after being released by private aquarium owners. DNA testing will show where the fish actually come from.

I’ve seen lionfish on the menus of Cayman’s finest eaters, and some chefs are joining in

Cobalt Coast Diver Lodge, Green Globe Certified

Cobalt Coast Diver Lodge, Green Globe Certified

the culling efforts, providing a market for what is said to be a fine light, white fish. But I’ve never tried it.

“We’re giving the fish to the lodge and they’re going to serve it tonight,” Elliott tells me. Indeed, lionfish turns out to be the catch of the day at dinner at the Cobalt Coast. I’ve never tried it before, but I’m willing to take a chance.

I order lionfish ceviche and it is spectacular; the perfect balance of texture and flavor.IMG_3866

In case you find some fresh lionfish on your travels, here is a cookbook created especially to turn lionfish into a culinary delicacy. Creating a demand for it may encourage more large-scale extraction of the fish, the strategy most likely to be effective at removing the unwelcome invader from the waters of the Caribbean. So eat up!

 

Sunset Cruisin with Red Sail in Grand Cayman

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We headed out for a sunset cruise of the North Sound, our consolation for missing the popular Stingray City. It was too windy that afternoon and the choppy waters prevented us from communing with the impressively, large winged rays. But our more intimate sail with the crew and only a few guests of Red Sail was much more than only compensation. AfterDSC_0464 all, my husband Guy took the helm and sailed our sleek, nearly empty catamaran.

I forget how it all started; probably the last hints of Guy’s British accent. I don’t hear it anymore, he’s been in the states for so long. But Ben, our captain, heard it. He was born in France and raised in England so he caught a whiff, and they were off. I heard some of the chat carried on the wind, old stories of school, and the many previous lives of people who couldn’t stay in one place.

DSC_0466Ben had worked for the British postal service, but couldn’t look out a window all day. Guy, once a motorcycle messenger in London, now a field biologist, needs to dig around in the dirt and uncover the bones of large extinct mammals.

DSC_0463I was having my own fun talking to Jeff, who seemed to know everything about this island, and was very good at mixing the rum punch even in rough seas! Ben and Jeff are characters straight out of central casting; outgoing adventurers with big spirits, who of course have not escaped the attention of other writers.

DSC_0494We angled back into the dock loaded with more than just big fish stories as the moon moved our our sails.

I’d heard from Jeff that he DJs at one of clubs on 7 Mile Beach, and I can’t wait to hear him spin some Beach House!