An invasive Indo-Pacific lionfish rests on the bottom of Blacktip Island’s new captive breeding pond Thursday afternoon. (photo courtesy of Daniel Dietrich)
A lionfish scarcity on Blacktip Island reefs has spurred local entrepreneurs to start a lionfish captive breeding program to supply the island’s restaurants. The facility, unveiled Thursday, is the first aquaculture program of its kind in the Caribbean.
“For years we’ve culled the hell out of lionfish to save the reef,” said Jay Valve, the program’s creator. “Local chefs put lionfish on their menus to encourage culling. Lionfish fingers, tacos, soufflés, you name it. It’s become an island staple.
“The cullers were so good, though, now there’s not enough lionfish to go around,” Valve said. “Both restaurants were going to have to take lionfish off their menus, or use dodgy substitutes.”
Island authorities say the shortage caused a public health risk.
“There’s a cutthroat black market for lionfish meat – real and fake,” Island Police Constable Rafe Marquette said. “Yobbos are selling parrotfish, day-old land crab, you name it, as lionfish. The clinic’s full of sick tourists. A supply of farm-raised fish should put an end to that.”
To create a suitable facility, Valve enlisted the aid of local marine biologists.
“We’re using an abandoned 20,000-gallon cistern out back of Sandy Bottoms Beach Resort,” said lead scientist Peachy Bottoms. “It’s the only place on Blacktip big enough. We tried doing it in the resort pool, but there were a couple of ugly incidents with small children. And a cat.
“The real trick was getting them to breed,” Bottoms said. “They’re nocturnal pelagic spawners, so we had to set up mirrors and video screens to simulate the open ocean. And a disco ball to simulate a full moon.”
Animal welfare groups, however, oppose the farm.
“These genetically-modified fish are raised in crowded, filthy conditions,” said Harry Pickett, president of Blacktip’s People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals chapter. “Instead of the natural joys of seeing coral or hunting their own prey, they spend their lives in total confinement from the moment they hatch until the instant they’re slaughtered.”
The program’s creators say the fish are better off than their wild counterparts.
“Our lionfish have it made,” Valve said. “They have no predators, besides us, and we raise them free of ocean pollutants. We don’t use hormones or antibiotics or free-radical gluten like other fish farms, either.
“They get a nutrient-rich diet of wet and dry cat food,” Valve said. “And Oreos. It speeds their growth and gives the flesh a fresh, sweet flavor.”
Local businesses are jumping on the aquaculture bandwagon despite the P.E.T.A. protests.
“We’re building an interactive theme park around the place,” said resort owner Sandy Bottoms. “Calling it ‘Lionfish World.’ Gonna have lionfish feeding pools, lionfish petting pools, Kevlar glove rentals and the chance to pick out which fish you want speared for dinner.”