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What's the best way to deal with an invasive species? In the Cayman's you turn it into fine food

DO you fancy a citrus tinged lionfish ceviche? Or what about lionfish Escabeche, Cayman-style, with roasted tomato, pickled vegetables, avocado, scallion, and cilantro?

The menu may sound mouth-watering –until you realise the main ingredient of the surprise delicacy is a poisonous predator of the seas whose very presence threatens the underwater paradise in the Caribbean.

Yet, in the Cayman Islands, the culinary capital of the West Indies, this agent of disaster is being devoured by adventurous diners as part of a grassroots move which has brought together a small band of scuba divers, conservationists and restaurateurs to protect the fragile coral reef system that rings the British Overseas Territory from the environmental invaders.

Armed with striking red and white colouring and pectoral fins which fan out with beautiful but deadly spines, lionfish are a dramatic sight for scuba divers visiting the Caymans. Only they do not belong in the islands’ tropical blue waters.

With no natural predators and an ability to reproduce rapidly, they threatens to overrun coral reefs, damaging ecologically important and commercially viable fish stocks vital to the tourism and fishing industries.

Faced with the “most damaging introduction that our reefs have ever seen,” environmental officials normally given to protecting marine life are encouraging their slaughter by arming suitably qualified divers with spears and orders to kill on-sight.

The do-it-yourself cull has slowly turned the tables on the lionfish invasion. A decision by one of the island’s most fancied restaurants to put lionfish on its menu has given it further impetus.

Thomas Tennant, executive chef at Michael’s Genuine Food and Drink, was first approached to cook the fish as part of a festival to promote the island’s internationally-recognised restaurant scene. Lionfish has now become a firm favourite with his diners.

“It’s the next big thing to eat on this side of the world,” said Mr Tennant. “Lionfish has a similar taste and texture to sole. It’s mild, slightly buttery, and slightly sweet in flavour.

“Convincing customers to try lionfish was a bit difficult to achieve at first. It is now one of my top sellers, so much so that people ask for it, even if it’s not printed on the menu. It practically sells itself.”

No one knows for sure how the species parachuted into the Atlantic, however the most accepted theory is of an accidental or intentional release of aquarium fish into the marine environment about 15 years ago.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, based in Washington DC, said the aggressive ambush hunter had spread along the eastern seaboard of America and throughout the Caribbean. It has established itself as the top predators in many coral reef environments, picking off reef fish and crustaceans not yet evolved to fear them. In Little Cayman, conservationists noted lionfish were preying on juvenile Nassau Grouper, a species already critically endangered from overfishing.

Bradley Johnson, research officer with the Cayman Islands’ Department of Environment, said the control and removal of the lionfish was critical to the balance of its marine ecosystem if it was to avoid the damaging effects seen in other parts of the Caribbean.

“Eradication is not possible,” he said. “The aim of our control program is to remove as many lionfish as possible to reduce the pressure on local species that are preyed upon and, in turn, buy time for a natural control to develop.

“We see very few lionfish on sites that are culled consistently, but on sites that don’t get many divers we find many more and much larger lionfish. We need to extend that consistent control effort to more sites.”

Dive guide Rhys Woon, 26, one of 300 divers with the Government-issued licence to kill, said he had seen change in fish behaviour since he joined the hunt last year.

”The young ones not been targeted previously are completely oblivious to what is coming, but those they have narrowly escaped before are certainly wary when they spot us and will try to hide inside crevices in the reef,” he said.

“As a dive guide, I would much rather point out spectacular fish out to tourists. However, we have to take action against lionfish for the future of the coral reef system.”

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