How Do You Solve a Problem Like Invasive Lionfish? Serve It for Dinner

Spearfishing underwater
Photographs shot on GoPro by Andy Cochrane

Scuba diving 80 feet underwater, time works nonlinearly. Seconds can stretch into eons, while an hour—and a full tank of gas—can pass by in a flash. Spread out in a horizontal line, combing the ocean floor, we move methodically, pausing to peer under rocks and into crannies, searching for invasive lionfish. After 20 minutes, our guide gives us the signal for lionfish—hands interlaced with fingers standing straight, then points to a nearby coral head.

I exhale, descending a few feet above the sandy bottom, and click record on my GoPro. After a morning Powerpoint class and an underwater practice session with water bottles tied to weights, this was our first real go with Hawaiian-sling spears, and I wanted to capture the action. We spot our first lionfish with its hallmark maroon body, white stripes, long dorsal spines, and fanned pectoral fins. Hunting lionfish, it turns out, is an exercise in patience.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s rewind a few days…

Getting to the Cayman Islands

Flying to the Cayman Islands is easy. After connecting in Newark, I took a four-hour flight to Georgetown; 15 minutes after landing, I was in my rental car. I planned to spend a week with Ocean Frontiers, a world-class dive shop known for its down-to-earth, family feel.

Based on the remote, east side of the island, I was looking forward to a slow pace of life and a lot of time underwater.

At the end of my first day at the small resort, I was taken in like a stray dog by the dive instructors, sharing beers and trading stories late into the night. Even the servers at the restaurant adjacent to the dive shop, Eage Rays, became fast friends, offering to cook fish tacos if we caught any lionfish.

You read that correctly. Eating lionfish has quickly become a sustainable, delicious remedy to this nasty little problem. Quick note: Lionfish are venomous, not poisonous, so eating them is entirely safe (even raw) once the spines are removed.

Scuba diving with shark
Andy Cochrane; shot on GoPro

How Lionfish got to the Cayman Islands

There isn’t a consensus on how lionfish made it to the Caribbean, but most believe they came from people dumping personal aquariums into the ocean, sometime in the mid-90s. Today, lionfish roam the coastline from Massachusetts to Brazil and live as deep as 1,000 feet. Originally from the Indo-Pacific, the species has become a serious problem for reef ecosystems around the world because they feast on juvenile fish, have few natural predators, reproduce rapidly, and ultimately decimate other populations.

Thanks to their relative isolation from the rest of the Caribbean, the first sighting of lionfish in the Cayman Islands wasn’t until 2008. Soon after the Department of Environment (DOE) issued a cull, aiming to keep their population under control. This was a far cry from how other islands dealt with the reef-wrecking fish. By 2010, many dive shops across the three islands were training both staff and visitors to hunt them.

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While most laymen know the British territory as a tax haven, the dive world has long considered it a scuba mecca. Dive shops offer an array of classes, including the basic PADI Open Water course, which enables you to dive on your own. For those wanting to spearfish, becoming scuba certified is a necessary step toward taking part in the cull. The popularity of diving on Cayman—including a fleet of boats and thousands of divers—gave the government the resources to fight lionfish head on.

Due to the inherent dangers of hunting a venomous fish, the DOE requires divers to take a lionfish class before starting to spear. For certified scuba divers, this means a day of both practical and applied lessons. While you technically don’t need to kill a lionfish to successfully graduate the class, we certainly wanted to. However, finding them is more challenging than it was a decade ago—a good sign for the environment.

East end locals say when culling started, a boat of divers could easily catch 200 lionfish in a two-tank dive. To put things in perspective, our group caught nine fish during a pair of dives. The reason for the discrepancy is twofold: Lionfish have learned to evade divers, sinking into small holes to stay out of view and, as shown in the DOE data, their population has shrunk significantly from the early days of the cull.

Andy Cochrane; shot on GoPro

Turning a pervasive species into a delicacy

Back to our underwater search party: On my third day of diving, after getting to explore underwater tunnels, float along the world-famous wall, and swim with a handful of sharks, I was ready to try my luck at spearfishing. I enjoyed the classroom lessons on biology and history, gaining a better understanding on why lionfish are a pervasive and serious threat. But like most, I was more excited about getting in the water and actually spearing.

Stan, another member of our informal hunting party, gently kicked himself into position. I continued filming while Sam offered advice, all via improvised hand gestures. Communication isn’t easy underwater, especially when you’re learning something new. However, an experienced diver and avid hunter on land, Stan knew not to rush: line up the shot, exhale slowly, and hope for the best.

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To be clear, spearguns aren’t allowed in Cayman. The spears we used were two-foot-long, three-pronged poles, with a rubber band that you stretch and release to propel the spear and impale fish. It’s a basic tool that isn’t always accurate, so it’s critical to get close—six inches to a foot—while making sure not to touch the venomous spines. This may sound straightforward, but it’s difficult when you’re also dealing with the surge of the ocean, your scuba gear, and your breath and buoyancy.

But the challenge is what makes it enjoyable, too. On his first shot, Stan hit the lionfish right behind the skull, pinning it on a rock. Even with his mask on and low visibility, I could tell he was excited. He borrowed a second spear from Saw to make sure it was securely hooked, then put it in the bucket. Our taco dinner—or at least a tasty appetizer—was secured. In the next half-hour, we would take turns snagging a handful more, before ascending back to the boat.

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What lionfish tastes like

Lionfish is delicious and high in omega-3 fatty acids, making it a perfect dish for an island that prides itself on culinary excellence. Many local chefs have caught on—including Thomas Tennant of Tomfoodery, a hip restaurant in Camana Bay—and collectively have turned lionfish into a delicacy. Tennant is an avid spear fisherman and works closely with the Cayman United Lionfish League to assist with lionfish tournaments and culling events.

These events help bring in a lot of lionfish for restaurants, promote new dishes, and create a way for more people to get involved in the invasive problem.

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Thanks to the government’s proactive actions a decade ago, and a broad interest in spearfishing, Cayman is a success story that other places can learn from. They’ve created a simple and beautiful solution—from ocean to table, so to speak—for a problem that could have destroyed their reefs, which are a crucial part of their tourism industry.

Speaking personally, I hope other destinations take the time to learn from it.

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