GEORGE TOWN, Cayman Islands, (Reuters) - In a reef just off the popular USS Kittiwake dive site in Grand Cayman, hunters armed with spears seek out lionfish - an invasive species so destructive that authorities want them caught and served up as a tasty dish.
With their striking pectoral fins and venomous dorsal spikes that fan out like a lion’s mane, the rampant lionfish have few natural predators and eat up smaller fish, shrimp and crab that protect the reef.
The Cayman Islands are fighting back with a campaign that encourages local divers to hunt lionfish, that are numbered in the tens of thousands, so that restaurants can serve them up to tourists.
Call it the “if you can’t beat ‘em, eat ‘em” approach.
Lionfish has begun to match grouper, snapper, and mahi-mahi as a delicacy in Cayman, where more than a dozen restaurants now have them on the menu.
“Boy, are they good to eat,” said celebrity Spanish chef José Andrés, who went hunting during a Cayman Cookout event. “Their sweet, white meat is unbelievable as a ceviche or sautéed with fresh herbs,” he said.
After a diver speared one on a recent trip, a teenage girl on vacation from Texas inspected the foot-long catch approvingly.
“I had lionfish tacos at Tukka,” she said of a restaurant on the island.
Thomas Tennant, a chef for the upscale Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink, now buys 120 pounds of lionfish a week from local divers at $5.50 a pound, serving diners a variety of dishes from raw, to a sandwich and a main course.
Native to the Indo-Pacific, lionfish are believed to have spread after some escaped from a private aquarium in south Florida during Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
They have since migrated throughout the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean, and even the eastern U.S. seaboard as far as Rhode Island, where they die in winter.
The fish are small and only 40 percent of the body is edible meat after removing the head, spines, and bones, meaning time-consuming work for chefs.
The concept of eating them has caught on elsewhere too. A Lionfish Festival, dubbed ‘Feast on the Beast’ was held last month in southwest Florida with local chefs in Fort Myers cooking up 200 pounds of lionfish fillets to benefit a local charity.
There is no way to calculate the size of the invasion.
“The number would be astounding,” said Lad Akins, director of special projects at REEF, an ocean conservation nonprofit based in the Florida Keys.
Site densities of 3,000 lionfish in an area roughly the size of a U.S. football field have been found in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, he said. A commercial lionfish export company, Spinion Ltd, created in the Cayman Islands in 2012, sells an average of 200 to 250 pounds a week to five local restaurants.
With rising demand, some restaurants, including Guy Harvey’s, are now importing lionfish from Honduras.
“We didn’t have enough lionfish here to satisfy the customer,” Bruno Deluche, Guy Harvey’s manager, said.
Editing by David Adams, Jill Serjeant and Andrew Hay