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Jack Johnson’s island slacker tunes drift from our dive boat stereo across the turquoise Caribbean Sea, back to Grand Cayman’s Seven Mile Beach. The stretch of white coral sand, colonized by chaise lounges, luxury hotels and condos of the tax-avoidant wealthy, shrinks in the distance as we approach Hammerhead Hole. The shallow dive site, one of roughly 240 on the vast coral reef flanking the island’s shorelines, is home to hawksbill turtles, nurse sharks, red snappers and myriad tiny algae eaters essential for reef health. Also: an invasive ex-pat known as Indo-Pacific red lionfish, the reason we’re here.

On board, José Andrés sharpens a three-pronged spear with a rusty file. The boisterous Spanish-American chef was named 2018 James Beard Humanitarian of the Year for his work preparing over three million meals for Puerto Ricans in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria; he’s also credited with popularizing tapas in the U.S. with his 31 restaurants, including the Michelin-starred Minibar in Washington, D.C. Andrés and some of the world’s most celebrated chefs are here for the Cayman Cookout, the island’s annual binge-booze-and-beach extravaganza. He’s also on a mission he hopes will do nothing less than rescue the sea’s threatened ecosystem. That’s why, at the moment, he’s suiting up for a lionfish hunt.

As the crew drops off the back of the boat, I strap on flippers and a snorkel, a contented surface dweller peering down on the action 10 metres below. Clutching spears and cylindrical catch containers, the divers float in slow motion, scanning the reef’s periwinkle and pale-yellow crags and crannies for the lionfish’s telltale stripes and feathery mane. An overly familiar four-foot nurse shark arrives to spiral between torsos and legs, momentarily distracting the group and sending this aforementioned surface dweller into a minor panic, before slipping beyond the reef’s precipice into the abyss. That’s when a petite, ponytailed dive guide thrusts her spear into a nook, yanks it back and reveals her one-pound, copper-and-white-striped prize.

Lionfish

Back up on the boat, Andrés is joined by a local chef named Thomas Tennant to prepare the catch. “Handling lionfish is like trying to wrangle a porcupine,” says Jason Washington, our guide and the owner of Ambassador Divers, as Tennant snaps on latex gloves and cuts off the venomous spines with shears. The imposing quills are one reason many chefs are reluctant to work with the fish – it’s a lot of work for a little meat. Diners also shy from ordering it, frightened off when they hear it’s venomous. Pushing lionfish as a delicacy is a tough sell here, even for a chef of Andrés’ calibre. But to reduce the predators’ numbers, it’s essential to serve them up.

Still dripping with water and suddenly wearing a pastel “Live Love Laugh” apron that a fan on board has given him only semi-ironically, Andrés commandeers a blowtorch from Tennant and freestyles lionfish crudo. He flames the glossy white coins with abandon, then showers them in grassy olive oil and barrel-aged habanero vinegar while delivering a disquisition on the lionfish problem. “There’s a rainbow under the ocean and if we want to keep it, we need to eat more lionfish. Why?” (An occasional Harvard lecturer on culinary physics, Andrés is prone to posing himself questions.) “Because lionfish eat everything from baby lobsters to cleaner shrimp to Nassau grouper.” As if on cue, one of the divers pries open the mouth of a still-twitching specimen and pulls an infant red snapper from its throat.

“If you don’t eat them, one day they will wipe out entire species of fish,” Andrés says. “And once the diversity in the coral reef system becomes unbalanced, the reef dies,” Tennant adds, gesturing emphatically with a tub of seasoning peppers. “If the reef dies, the fish go away. And if the fish go away, there won’t be any divers coming to visit. You’ll have a dead reef and no tourism.” Andrés concludes: “Lionfish are beautiful, but they should be beautiful in a photo gallery on your computer, not in the coral reef.” Bloodlust sufficiently stoked, we pass around Andrés’ improvised dish. I feel oddly conflicted as I pop a pristine piece of meat into my mouth, like I’m sustainable hate-eating. But then I taste the fish – flaky yet firm, a bit buttery-sweet, like the overlooked middle sibling of tilapia and halibut – and, oh my god, it’s good.

Lionfish

Criminal, scourge, sea bastard, enemy, the perfect invasive species, the cannibal of the coral: These are a few of the choice names locals use to describe the lowly lionfish during my week on the island. But I like to think of the fish as a comic book supervillain – its origin story is shrouded in tropical-urban legend, its immortality is deeply feared and it even has a great adversary courtesy of a gang of vigilante hunters known as the Cayman United Lionfish League, or CULL. Tag lines include “Kill ’em and grill ’em” and “Not on my reef.”

Jason Washington, the dive operator who took me out on the hunt, founded CULL in 2013. I meet him again on the seaside patio at VIVO Alternative Restaurant at the northern point of Seven Mile Beach. The Caribbean Sea is thrashing against the rocks just over my shoulder, whipped up by a mid-winter storm that Caymanians keep apologizing for, unaware that today’s 30-degree temp is a full 45 degrees warmer than it is at home in Toronto.

Though vegan, the kitchen makes an exception for lionfish to do their part for the reef. And so we dunk golden-crisp lionfish cakes in terrifically trashy dairy-free Thousand Island dressing, while Washington explains that researchers don’t exactly know how the Indo-Pacific native made its way here. But popular lore has it that when Hurricane Andrew hit southern Florida in 1998, a resort’s aquarium of lionfish spilled into the sea. It’s like the Joker falling into a vat of acid.

Researchers do know that by 2008, the population had exploded in the Bahamas. Lionfish breed like insatiable pescatarian bunnies, with females releasing up to 30,000 eggs every four days; the DNA from the estimated current Caribbean population, which may reach as high as 47 million, can be traced to as few as three astonishingly fecund fish. “Currents carried lionfish to the Caribbean and up to the Gulf of Mexico and around Florida on a big, circular highway,” says Washington. It’s been an easy trip – they have no known predators in these parts, because Caribbean Sea life doesn’t recognize the interlopers as food. In 2015, a diver caught a video of a grouper snapping up lionfish. It’s the first and only known footage of predation in these parts.

Lionfish

As Washington talks, plates crowd the table and lionfish surrounds us on all sides. There’s battered lionfish, sandwiched between sesame seed buns, smothered in cashew cream and bedazzled with lettuce, tomato and onion. There are meaty white chunks of lionfish in rich yellow coconut curry. And for the clean eaters, there’s seared lionfish topped with tangy tomato salsa. Apparently, I’ve dispensed with my mixed feelings and am all the way in on filet-o-sea-bastard.

CULL figures the fastest route to population control and, in turn, reef survival is to promote lionfish hunting as sport – and its flesh as a covetable culinary commodity. In lockstep with other like-minded organizations in Florida, Curaçao and the Bahamas, they host derbies several times a year in which hard-core divers and even a few dabblers compete to see who can haul in the greatest bounty. At this year’s Florida series, between June and September, the US$47,000 purse was sponsored by Whole Foods Market, which now sells lionfish at many of its counters. And a few years ago, Washington started teaching a one-day course in the art and safety of capturing lionfish to enviro-minded dive tourists interested in picking up their own three-pronged spears.

Is the strategy working? Washington believes it is. “When we started hunting lionfish back in 2008, they would sit on the reef like chickens and we could pick them off by the bucketful. Now it’s harder and harder to spot them,” he says.

Lionfish

For more insight, I hop a six-seater plane to take me 150 kilometres to Little Cayman, a 170-person satellite where the corner store-sized airport is also the fire station, the post office and a local hang. I stroll the veranda at the Central Caribbean Marine Institute (CCMI), set on a palm-lined swath of beach where researchers tend to coral nurseries and run a lionfish management program. Carrie Manfrino, a Fulbright-winning oceanographer and CCMI’s president of research and conservation, tells me her team of scientists has, like Washington, seen a reduction in the population through culling. Even more promising, they’ve recently found evidence that native predators are beginning to recognize lionfish as food; that video of the lionfish-loving grouper may not be a fluke, but part of a larger pattern.

But natural adaptation is a long, long game and, until then, hungry diners may be the reefs’ surest bet. That’s why, on a blistering Cayman morning, Andrés leaps from a helicopter, plummets several metres – a bear hurtling through blue sky into blue water – then mounts a Jet Ski and charges onto the beach. After a quick change into a “We Are All Immigrants” tee (Andrés has been a vocal champion of U.S. immigration reform) and a few hearty slugs of gin-fortified champagne sangria straight from the pitcher, he sets about making two pans of paella the size of kiddie pools, the same kind he served in Puerto Rico last fall.

This time, he’s feeding some of the food world’s most influential people, including Eric Ripert, Daniel Boulud and Dominique Crenn, and video of the stunt will go out to his million-plus social media followers. So when he lays several delicate lionfish on top of the bubbling, saffron-scented skillets and tells the crowd that his new restaurant will be in the Bahamas and will serve the scourge of the Caribbean, he’s not just a chef plugging a project. He’s an unlikely superhero.


Stay

Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman

Photos: The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman

Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman

Hit Seven restaurant for bottomless bubbly with your eggs benny before flopping into a lounge chair on Seven Mile Beach, golfing nine palm-fringed holes or stealing away to your room’s ocean-facing balcony with a book and rum cake from the coffee shop.

What we loved Making like Serena Williams on immaculate clay and hard tennis courts.

ritzcarlton.com/en/hotels/caribbean/grand-cayman

Do

Southern Cross Club

Photo: Southern Cross Club, Bloody Bay Marine Park / Alex Mustard

Southern Cross Club

The 35-minute flight to sleepy Little Cayman is well worth a side trip, even just to stay at this mid-century fishing club turned 14-cottage hideaway on a calm green-blue lagoon bordered by reef. Divers, be sure to book a trip to nearby Bloody Bay Wall, a sheer reef cliff covered in colourful coral that scuba diehards often deem one of the seven wonders of the underwater world.

southerncrossclub.com

Ambassador Divers

Photo: Jason Washington

Ambassador Divers

Divers can leave the reef in better shape than they found it by signing up for a one-day lionfish hunting certification course, which involves school in the morning and spear-wielding amid the coral in the afternoon.

ambassadordivers.com

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CARIBBEAN     GRAND CAYMAN