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How One Island Found a Clever Way to Solve Its Environmental Crisis

09/09/2015 05:29 EDT | Updated 09/09/2016 05:12 EDT
Zoonar RF via Getty Images
lionfish

"It all came down to creating a demand for the flesh" I was being told. Now before you react with horror, this isn't a story about zombies, vampires or the illegal sex trade. It's about solving an environmental nightmare that's descended upon the Caribbean during the past fifteen years. It's a story about one island's very clever way to solve this environmental crisis. It's a story about lionfish.

Now lionfish may be one of the most truly beautiful creatures you'll encounter when you're scuba diving or snorkelling in tropical water. Long lacy fins adorn their reddish hued zebra stripped bodies. They look vaguely like some act from an aquatic version of Cirque du Soleil. They are, however, deadly poisonous. People who have been stabbed by their fins have described the experience as agonizing beyond belief. Fortunately, they're not aggressive and if you mind your manners and keep a reasonable distance when you're diving then you've no reason to be concerned.

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(Photo by Divetech/Grand Cayman)

I first saw a lionfish in the Red Sea in 1982 while diving in Eilat. I was thrilled and it was definitely the highlight of my experience. Now there's nothing wrong with lionfish where they're indigenous -- the Indian and Pacific Ocean. They're kept in check by the usual predators and their population stays pretty stable. But about 20 years ago a few started to appear in the Caribbean. Nobody was quite sure how they got there, some suggested they'd been accidentally released by an aquarium accident, some thought they were pumped out of the bilge water of ships passing through the Panama Canal. Regardless, they were seen as a charming anomaly. Until they started to breed out of control. A female lionfish can lay 30,000 eggs every three days. And because they're not residents of the Caribbean, none of the usual predators like sharks or groupers would eat them. Their numbers skyrocketed. The problem compounded because lionfish are voracious predators. They're a kind of underwater raccoon that will eat anything that moves. They were decimating the populations of reef fish. In some parts of the Caribbean there are claims they're destroyed 80 per cent of the naturally occurring reef fish.

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(Photo by R Osborne)

Jason Washington has made his living off those reefs for 18 years. Since 2002 he's been the owner of Ambassador Divers on Grand Cayman. He just couldn't stand watching what the lionfish were doing to the pristine reefs that surround the island. He wasn't the only one. Consider that the island makes more than 600 million dollars a year in tourism revenue. A significant portion of that money comes from the diving industry -- the most recent study suggests about a third. So it clearly wasn't a good thing to have one of Grand Cayman's primary resources being decimated by a foreign pest. In 2010, Washington and a number of other locals went to the Cayman Department of the Environment and proposed a solution. They called it the "Lionfish Rodeo." An all out hunt of the reefs where any lionfish was fair game. They got permission, dive shops across the island embraced the idea and within a matter of hours they'd caught 560 fish.

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(Photo by Divetech/Grand Cayman)

But the hunt was only half of the solution. And here's where I think the plan gets really clever. Washington and the group he worked with, Cayman United Lionfish League decided they needed to create an appetite among islanders and tourists to start eating lionfish. Hence his opening statement about a taste for flesh. They convinced some of the top rated chefs on the island (a place with an abundance of absurdly good restaurants) to work with them to prepare lionfish dishes. Chef's at Meza's Restaurant were initially quite nervous about handling the fish according to Washington. He says "we had to convince them that just because the fish were poisonous, didn't mean the meat was toxic." he results were truly impressive. It turned out the meat was not dissimilar to grouper in texture and taste (a fish that's popular but endangered in some spots.) The bottom line, the idea took off. Lionfish has become so popular on the island that its considered a must on every restaurant's menu. While I was on island diving a week ago I had a superb lionfish Ceveiche at Guy Harvey's Island Grill. The most recent Lionfish Rodeo featured Thai Coconut Lemongrass soup and sliders prepared by the Blue Parrot Bar

The results of this initiative are impressive. I put in 12 dives over five days while I was staying on Grand Cayman and I saw just two lionfish. That fact actually doesn't tell the whole story. I spent a lot of time looking for lionfish, on one dive nearly 40 minutes peering under coral ledges where they like to hide, and found nothing. I compare that to the last two trips I made down south -- to Roatan in Honduras and Cuba's south shore. Both locations were infested with lionfish. Grand Cayman's reefs are in superb shape.

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(Photo by R. Osborne)

Now the program on Grand Cayman is not without its critics. Some suggest that lionfish still abound in between the sites where they're being hunted and down deep where recreational divers can't go. But I'm not convinced those criticisms have any weight. There's nothing for the lionfish to eat if they're living deep and I just don't think they're smart enough to intentionally avoid areas where periodically they're being hunted. I think they're getting a handle on the problem in Grand Cayman. Washington tells me that on the last hunt -- their 16th -- they took out nearly 900 fish. The good news, "they're getting smaller and smaller" according to Washington. That means the large breeding adults are getting scarce.

Washington would love to see other islands in the Caribbean adopt a similar approach. In fact a number of islands have done just that. Roatan has launched a similar initiative and several locations on the Bahamas are also holding regular hunts to cull the reef. Will it be enough to halt the onslaught? Scientists at NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association) are not optimistic stating "unfortunately, NOAA researchers have concluded that invasive lionfish populations will continue to grow and cannot be eliminated using conventional methods."

But the Lionfish Rodeo isn't conventional. So maybe there's hope in this approach. At the very least, its a tasty way to try and put a little balance back into the environment.

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