Hungry for adventure? There’s a delicious solution to combat lionfish – an invasive fish species threatening the marine ecosystem off Grand Cayman’s shores: Eat them! We began doing so in Grand Cayman in January and are now partnering with Ambassador Divers to offer tourists and locals alike the opportunity to join professional Divemasters and instructors on a privately chartered boat in the hunt to spear lionfish on the open water. Upon returning from the outing, the freshly-caught lionfish will be cleaned and delivered to executive chef Thomas Tennant at the restaurant, where the group will meet later that evening to feast on the morning’s catch – all the while stemming the proliferation of this voracious predator.
“Lionfish Safari is a great opportunity for diners to help save the reefs and enjoy a delicious, spontaneous meal,” says executive chef Thomas Tennant. “At the same time, they get to see – and be – the very source of the main ingredient.”
In the Caribbean, Indo Pacific Red Lionfish have no natural predators; they are skilled at out-competing the native species like the Nassau grouper and are eating an unsustainable amount of juvenile reef fish. A single adult female can lay as many as 30,000 eggs every four days. Native to the tropical waters of the Pacific Ocean, the fish is said to have been accidentally released in the Carolinas and for the past several years has been invading the waters off the Florida Keys and Cayman Islands. Since 2008, the Cayman Islands have been fighting these glutinous eaters as they prey on the fish that maintain the health of the Islands’ reefs. Luckily, this is not new news. The national media has been in a lionfish frenzy over the past year; a search of the New York Times alone yields no less than three stories from the environment section and the magazine to the opinion pages on the invasion, and awareness of the “invasivore” diet’s emergence is widespread, including health beat coverage on NPR. Close to our home base in Miami, a recent study done by Florida International University (see video) chronicles the predator’s arrival to central Florida’s Loxatachee River.
“Stings from the spines of the red lionfish’s dorsal fin are rarely fatal, but can be uncomfortable and cause nausea so they must be handled by licensed fishermen,” explains Jason Washington of Ambassador Divers. “The good news is that it is completely safe to consume once the venomous spines are carefully removed. The Lionfish Safari will help keep the population under control to preserve the health and beauty of the reefs, all the while providing fun and adventure.”
For two days before the much anticipated Taste of Cayman culinary event this past January, more than 100 divers assembled by Washington, in partnership with the Department of the Environment, to remove what amounted to 300 pounds of lionfish meat. Using the catch the main ingredient for his event tasting station, chef Tennant prepared Lionfish Escabeche, Cayman-style, with roasted tomato, Worcestershire, pickled vegetables, avocado, extra virgin olive oil, scallion, and cilantro.
In recognition of its efforts, Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink Grand Cayman received a Certificate for Environmental Conservation Efforts from the Taste of Cayman Committee. Since then, Tennant and Washington have posted WANTED notices encouraging divers to catch the lionfish and deliver it to the restaurant for a ransom.
“I was thrilled when Jason approached us with the safari idea, because we’ve had great feedback from our customers since Taste, as I try new lionfish preparations,” explains Tennant. “I’m excited to have a new fish to work with that also helps preserve the local environment. We’re always looking for ways to get more product in-house, so when we can connect with customers and educate them in a fun and engaging way, too, it’s a win, win.”
The excursion can be booked any day of the week excluding Fridays by calling Ambassador Divers at 345.949-4530 or 345.916.1064. Guests will be picked up from their hotel at 7:45 a.m., returning to the dock at noon. Price is US $1,200 for up to 6 people, which includes a privately-chartered boat, tanks, all dive gear, and a multi-course meal that same evening at Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink with a champagne toast.
Guests will discover their custom dinner menu upon arrival. From a chef’s point of view, lionfish is a versatile and easy fish to work with, friendly to many styles of preparation. Like snapper, it has a nice, thin skin, which when left on, pan-fries and sears crisp; remove the skin and toss in tempura batter for a light deep fry or in citrus juice for ceviche. Fried and pickled in vinegar for escabeche is very good, too – even simply seasoned with salt, pepper and olive oil in the restaurant’s wood-burning oven.
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