The Answer to the Caribbean’s Invasive Species Issue Is to Eat Them

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Jason Otte )

People aren’t the only ones who like to escape from their hometowns; animals do, too, but with more serious consequences than being unable to speak a language.

Scientists classify any species that didn’t originate from an environment as invasive. Simply put, it’s something that doesn’t belong. The introduction of a species like this throws off the balance of the ecosystem — and destroys it. “Some of them are very obvious, like invasive insects that destroy the dominant tree,” says Daniel Simberloff, professor of environmental science at the University of Tennessee. “Others change fire cycles, [such as] invasive African grasses.” Another well-known invasive species is the lionfish.

(Image credit: Hamanasi Resort)

Native to the Pacific and Indian oceans, lionfish have made their way into the Caribbean (most likely when an aquarium broke open during Hurricane Andrew in 1992), where they are in a feeding frenzy. These incredibly poisonous fish invade by predation, eating nearly everything around them, like crustaceans, shrimp, and fish, which also form the staple diets of many of the larger reef fish. This means the non-native lionfish pose a major threat to the Caribbean food chain.

I first learned about the lionfish on a scuba-diving trip to Belize. Staring out into the expanse of the coral wall, it’s easy to get lost amidst the bright purple fans and swirling schools of brightly colored fish. Many species here are endangered; above all, when we dive, we try not to touch, tap, or otherwise disturb the coral or the environment around it.

So imagine my surprise when, on one of my first dives, our guide motioned for us to stop, taking the fluorescent-yellow speargun from behind his jacket to swim down to the sandy ocean floor. I strained against my goggles to see the spiky lionfish poking out beneath a soft pink coral head. He pounded the spear once, twice, three times. The large silver groupers and red snappers that followed us pounced, eating right off the spear.

In the look-but-don’t-touch rulebook, the lionfish is the exception.

For Gary Frost, owner of Living the Dream Divers in Grand Cayman, lionfish hunting is a part of any dive. After spotting their first lionfish in 2005, scientists from the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (R.E.E.F) came to the island to educate dive masters on the issue. “Until then, spear fishing and owning a spear were strictly forbidden in the Cayman Islands,” says Frost. “Our guided dives remain the same, but we now carry the spears, killing and leaving the lionfish on the reef, letting nature handle it.”

Each diver learns the signal for lionfish — two hands threaded through each other to emulate its spikes — to let the dive-masters know. The Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) even offers an Invasive Lion Fish Tracker course for those divers eager to do their part to help the environment.

(Image credit: Hamanasi Resort)

Hamanasi Dive and Adventure Resort in Stann Creek, Belize, takes a slightly different approach. Although they run special “hunting” trips — they caught over 5,000 fish in 2015 — they also make a point to serve lionfish in the kitchen. “We’ve made the first step that we believe can save our reef system,” says Terrill Castillo, the Adventure Center manager and PADI dive instructor. “[Our lionfish hunt offering] is popular for the diver who wants to enjoy the thrill of the sport of lionfish hunting. They love to eat lionfish, or they have a passion for doing their part to help the environment.”

Says Executive Chef Marcia Nunez, “By far the most popular dish we make is the lionfish ceviche, because it is a small piece of fillet.” Other popular preparations include breaded fish strips, lionfish empanadas, and even lionfish pizza.

Invasive species like the lionfish can significantly alter an environment’s ecosystem, but getting creative in the kitchen can help return a sense of balance — and add a tasty addition to the menu.