Foodies are over the idea that this fish is poisonous. They’re not at all poisonous! It’s not a 3 eyed “Blinky”! The dorsal and pelvic spines are venomous, which is completely different, and in this case very rarely life threatening. Kind of like an extra sore bee sting that can more easily be avoided, with proper gear and awareness. I speak from experience, having carelessly been stung while diving in the Cayman Islands. Just avoid touching the spikes while the creature is still alive and you’ll be fine. This is not a fish that actively seeks out swimmers to jab and stab, they hide under deep rocks (It’s a cullers job to do the jabbing and stabbing). Once dead for over an hour, and definitely once cooked, the spines are no longer harmful and can even be used as toothpicks. A succulent white fish with many culinary possibilities, the official Lionfish Cook Book has proven very helpful in my own kitchen. Try the encrusted sweet potato recipe, you’ll be hooked.
This weekend I was lucky enough to be invited to join Gunter’s EcoMarine team. The same team I witnessed take first place for ‘Most Fish’ caught in 2012, on what was my first trip to Utila. I couldn’t be happier to be on the same team with these world class professional divers, even if I am to spend the majority of the hunt as the bucket carrier. Low end of the totem pole, meh. Someone’s gotta do it.
We’re now heading west for the “secret spots” … Sploooooosh … We begin our first decent. A 30 meter dive to kick things off wakes you up in a good mood, like Honduran coffee.
At first the landscape is sparse. Not seeing too much at this secret spot, I keep peering under coral head over-hangs while we work our way forward towards a wall. I begin to question if we came to the wrong location.. fellas?
Finally, there you are! A medium sized brown, black, and white lion spine-mained beast is staring right at me. Hawaiian Sling time sucka (The weapon of choice for this activity)! With the elastic firmly between my thumb and index finger, I slide my hand down towards the 5 pronged tip to take aim … BAM ! My first fish of the day. A team mate comes over to take a second stab at the pescado’s head, making sure it’s as dead as can be before we shove it into the bucket. The next 20 minutes proves worthwhile, as I’m holding the cumbersome bucket out for more. Fantastic spot after all.
Safety stop and surface to count our catch. Thirteen is the magic number, an Ok start for a 2 tank competition. Organizers all have their own styles for setting cull time limits. Some by time, others by tank. Tank count is a safer option to reduce the risk for excited less experienced divers who may push their limits too hard.
Diving on it’s own is exhilarating, add eco-friendly hunting to the mix and it’s a straight road to thrills-ville. I spot an extra large evasive invasive and want to pounce like a hangover on a baleada ! Come here little alien, you’re getting deported! And to be sure, I signal my team. Aware that my 2.5 foot spear is not as promising as the 4 foot spear being held by my more experienced team mate. I point out the hefty specimen and hold the bucket in position. This fish is too big to risk getting away.
With the first dive complete, it’s time to relax. Savor freshly sliced watermelon, and a smooth boat ride to the next mooring buoy for dive 2! It’s decided that for this second run, we’ll split up into pairs to cover more ground. The pro-team is then able to do a more technical dive, going deeper for the bigger lionfish. Some how the coy devils have learned to hide further and further down. Not entirely a bad thing, it means that the culls are doing their job in keeping the lionfish off the shallow reefs, where juvenile fish are vulnerable. But they’re still down there.
Sent to the shallower reefs, my buddy and I are only finding jack (fish that is). Fortunately, “Team Deep” brought back 10 more huge lionfish. Twenty-three is nowhere close to a big number for a derby competition, as other countries have bigger problems, but that’s good news for local reefs here in Honduras! And it means less trimming and weighing for the Whale Shark & Oceanic Research Center volunteers.
Today’s Lionfish Derby has been organized by Under Water Vision and Alton’s Dive Center. A strong team who has worked tirelessly to bring all the dive shops together for this much appreciated event. A great success, with over 20 teams having participated.
Last ones to check in, we’re waiting on the dock with bated breath to hear who will be taking home the all important bragging rights. Hook, line, and sinker: In the running for 3 awards, EcoMarine finishes second in each category. Missing ‘Largest Fish’ by only 7mm. Darn it! 7 millimeters!?
The weigh-in closes at 5pm. Time for a sunset Salva Vida, while the kitchen gets busy putting the day’s catch to use. Andre from Under Water Vision – bro cheers ensue “HOO HOO HOO HOO HOOOOO!” the man clearly has unrivaled crowd support – and his team present 3 scrumptious dishes made on site from today’s massive catch. First course Lionfish Ceviche, Second course Lionfish Chowder (so hardy), Third Course Lionfish “Cheeks”.
Nom. Nom. Nom.
The after party cook-out is open to everyone. A small fee of 100 lempiras ($5) is charged to non-participants, to help pay for the added ingredients used, along with related organization costs. There is a lot of food, but with a crowd of 200, it doesn’t last long. The bar reigns champion supreme, maintaining bragging rights for serving the crowd the longest. I passed on whatever cocktail beverage was being stirred-up in the 20 gallon container.
Bay Islands you never disappoint. If lionfish culling sounds like something you’d be interested in, talk to your dive shop of choice for more information. For further details on the species and local invasion contact the Utila Center for Marine Ecology. Culling is adventurous, energizing, and environmentally friendly when done right. Most dive shops in Honduras require that cullers have taken a course, are certified as a Rescue Diver or preferably a Dive Master. But that doesn’t mean you can’t still get involved as a spotter! The more eyes to find the buggers, the better.