Fourteen years ago on a tranquil day much like any other in the famously laid-back Cayman Islands, divers spotted a distinctively striped, alarm-raising spine sticking out from a reef. Reports of an underwater predator migrating toward the islands from the northeast already had locals on the lookout, and now their fears were confirmed: Lionfish had arrived.
Never before seen in this part of the world, at first there were just a few of the colorful lionfish—which can grow to be 18 inches long and boast brightly alternating bands of orange and white to form an design that is, admittedly, more tiger than lion. But their numbers swelled and before long this thriving corner of the ocean was tormented by a new environmental crisis. Local populations of fish and crustaceans were wiped out; reefs lay empty. As the plentiful underwater ecosystem upon which residents and visitors of the Cayman Islands rely for sustenance and income was devoured by this invasive species, humans and wildlife alike suffered.
Here began a tale of innovation and perseverance that would create an entirely new, in-demand industry—not to mention a novel addition to Cayman cuisine.
Lionfish: Invasive king of the sea?
No one knows exactly how lionfish, a species native to the Indian and Pacific oceans, made its way across to the Atlantic. The most widely shared theory is that the problem was created by humans and that the fish were introduced to the region when people owning them as pets dumped their aquariums into the waters off Miami. While the cause of their invasion might never be verified, more certain is the multifaceted destruction inflicted by the venomous, voracious predators.
Not only do lionfish eat enormous quantities of sea life spanning fish, fish eggs, crustaceans, and mollusks, but they also consume the algae responsible for cleaning coral reefs, which has the potential to fuel massive reef die-offs. Lionfish have no native predators and reproduce rapidly, laying up to 30,000 eggs every few days. This exponential population growth isn’t the only reason they’re difficult to eliminate. A prick from their highly venomous spines can lead to convulsions, numbness, and even death, making them dangerously difficult for humans to catch.
The government knew it needed to take action. Where previously spearfishing was illegal, the Department of Environment gave licensed individuals permission to cull the fish, and training was given on the use of harpoons. But the speed at which the fish bred meant divers simply couldn’t keep up, and merely killing the fish seemed like a cruel and unsustainable solution—at least according to conservationist Jason Washington and chef and seasoned spearfisherman Thomas Tennant, who joined forces to create a tastier solution.
Tides of change
Tennant was already familiar with preparing non-native species in his kitchen, having developed a cooking technique that added the invasive green iguana to menus across the Caymans. Then shortly after lionfish made their disastrous imposition, Tennant brought the fish to the menu at Michael’s Genuine, where he was named head chef in 2010. He later introduced lionfish dishes to a number of other regional restaurants he helmed, including the Brasserie on Grand Cayman and Fi’lia in the Bahamas. In 2018 he launched his current venture, Tomfoodery Kitchen, which often features lionfish on its menu.
While lionfish spines are venomous, their flesh isn’t poisonous to eat. After tasting the juicy, white meat—which has been described as a buttery cross between lobster and shrimp—he was keen to assist with conservation efforts.
“It wasn’t easy to convince people to eat lionfish,” Tennant told AFAR. “People assumed they were toxic to eat.”
But after months of positive campaigning and as the damage lionfish were inflicting became more apparent, more and more people were won over. Decimated reefs affected not only food supplies but also hurt the business of local fishermen and the tourism industry. As the problem grew, Tennant’s sustainable sea-to-table solution became ever more appealing.
Then in 2010, Jason Washington and the Department of Environment hosted the first official “Lionfish Tournament,” which encouraged divers to head out and catch as many of the creatures as possible. Lionfish tournaments are ongoing to this day, spearheaded by C.U.L.L (Cayman United Lionfish League), which rewards divers for their catch. At the first event, Tennant cooked up a storm using the culled lionfish in such dishes as lionfish ceviche and sandwiches, to many glowing reviews.
As of 2022, all three of the islands—Grand Cayman, Little Cayman, and Cayman Brac—are actively involved in culling lionfish, which now includes analyzing the fish for research before exporting them to restaurants both within the Caymans and overseas.
The future of lionfish
Lionfish have become a popular menu item not just in the Cayman Islands but across the Greater and Lesser Antilles and along the Florida coast as well, where the going rate is as high as $30 per fish. It can be eaten fried, steamed, grilled, or raw, and popular dishes include lionfish tacos, escovitch, and sushi. In addition to Tomfoodery Kitchen, another tasty place to try lionfish is Tukka, which has two locations on Grand Cayman.
Tennant particularly loves using the fish for ceviche and leverages it to put a creative twist on the classic Jamaican dish ackee and saltfish. “I’m also working on a savory doughnut using salted lionfish, local peppers, scallions, and brown butter,” he explained.
Lionfish have become so popular in the Caribbean that the islands can’t keep up with demand, and some local restaurants must import them from other countries. According to the Department of Environment, when culling began, divers would collect up to 200 lionfish from a single two-tank dive session. Now they’re lucky to find 10. This begs the question, with lionfish such a popular part of the Cayman Islands’ cuisine, what will happen when this invasive species is defeated?
The Department of Environment is aware that lionfish numbers are dwindling. Whether this is a permanent change due to the continuous local culling efforts or a momentary dip, this is still good news for the Cayman Islands.
According to Thomas Tennant, “The ultimate goal is to eliminate these fish from the waters where they don’t belong.” Using them as a tasty food is an added incentive when culling. “It’s not vital as food, but when people eat lionfish, they know they are helping other species to thrive.”