Everything you need to know about the Lionfish invasion in Belize, and what Ray Caye is doing to help manage the situation.
You might think that our island restaurant is called Lionfish Grill because it sounds so tropical, but in fact, there is a much deeper meaning behind the name. The Lionfish is a predator native to the Indian and Pacific Oceans (where it has its own natural predators), that was accidentally introduced to the western Atlantic, somewhere near Florida, back in the 1980s. In December 2008, a Dive Instructor made the first Belizean sighting of the Lionfish near the Turneffe Atolls, and almost exactly a year later, a marine conservation company made the first sighting in Southern Belize. Since then, the Lionfish, with its insatiable "all-you-can-eat" appetite, and impressive breeding speed, has been unleashing ecological havoc across the Atlantic, and in particular, Belize and the Caribbean.
The Lionfish have no natural predators in our Caribbean waters, not to mention they will eat just about anything, and have a bigger appetite than any of our native fish. When you couple that with the fact that they breed faster than everything else in our waters, the problem becomes very clear, very quickly - Sean Faux, Dive Instructor, Pirate Reef Divers, Ray Caye
Initially, the Lionfish invasion seemed like something impossible to manage, and beyond ruining the ecological balance of our waters, it was also undermining two of our most prominent industries; fishing and tourism. The Lionfish is easily recognizable with distinctive brown and white "zebra" stripes, and 18 long and venomous needle-like dorsal fins. Visually, everything about the Lionfish tells you to stay away from it, and in the early days, many Belizean fishermen incorrectly believed that the sting from a Lionfish was fatal. However, over the past decade, fishermen and dive instructors in Belize have worked with conservationists and it is now fully understood that, although a sting from a Lionfish may be painful to humans, it is rarely fatal. This knowledge, coupled with new fishing techniques, is at least allowing the country to manage this unwanted marine situation.
One positive aspect to the Lionfish is that they are absolutely delicious to eat. Imagine the tasty and firm white meat of a Grouper or Snapper, and you'll be close to the flavor of Lionfish. Naturally, some people have worried about the safety of eating this venomous fish, but it's important to note that once you dispose of the spiny fins, there is absolutely no risk at all and the fish can be prepared however you choose. Here on Ray Caye, we take full advantage of this fact, and our island fishermen and dive instructors regularly come back with spears full of fresh Lionfish ready to be used in an array of tempting dishes at our aptly-named, Lionfish Grill! This means that you can enjoy some of the best catches of our Caribbean Sea, while helping us to control our local Lionfish population; delicious island dining and ocean conservation, all at the same time!
For those wanting a true taste of Central America, our Lionfish Tacos are a famous treat on Ray Caye; fresh golden fried Lionfish strips, topped with cabbage, cilantro slaw and fresh Pico de Gallo in a corn tortilla. Or try our moreish Lionfish Cakes; perfect little cakes of fresh fish, served on a bed of island-grown arugula, drizzled with African basil aioli. We also regularly have Lionfish Ceviche, and Chef Cris is well known for creating the occasional daily special using Lionfish too!
Finally, if you're a diver and ocean conservation is something you'd like to be directly involved in while visiting Ray Caye, we can make that happen. Although standard fishing is not permitted in the protected area around our island, the conservation benefits of reducing the Lionfish population means that spearfishing Lionfish is positively encouraged. In fact, Lionfish is the only fish that it is legal to catch while using a Scuba tank. Our island Dive Shop, Pirate Reef Divers, can organize trips with trident slings for divers who want to take part in this underwater activity, and better still, you can have your own catch cooked up for dinner!
It's a great feeling when you have not only tried something new, like spearfishing, but have also made such a positive impact at the same time. We know that eradicating the Lionfish is virtually impossible, so the fact that we can take guests out and give them an opportunity like this is something we take a lot of pride in. Being able to then eat your own catch at the end of the day is a really special experience! - Eyanick Pop, Dive Instructor, Pirate Reef Divers, Ray Caye