THE SCOURGE OF THE CARIBBEAN LE FLÉAU DES CARAÏBES

SINCE THEIR POP­U­LA­TION EX­PLODED A DECADE AGO, LI­ON­FISH HAVE BEEN GOBBLING UP EV­ERY­THING IN SIGHT. THE BEST WAY TO RID THE REEF OF THIS MA­RINE MENACE? JUST EAT IT.

Air Canada enRoute - - CONTENTS - BY / PAR RACHEL HEINRICHS

A Miche­lin-starred chef’s de­li­cious mis­sion to rein in the li­on­fish pop­u­la­tion.  Un chef étoilé au Miche­lin a une mis­sion : ré­duire la pop­u­la­tion de ras­casse volante.

JACK JOHN­SON’S IS­LAND SLACKER TUNES DRIFT FROM our dive boat stereo across the turquoise Caribbean Sea, back to Grand Cay­man’s Seven Mile Beach. The stretch of white coral sand, col­o­nized by chaise lounges, lux­ury ho­tels and con­dos of the tax­avoidant wealthy, shrinks in the dis­tance as we ap­proach Ham­mer­head Hole. The shal­low dive site, one of roughly 240 on the vast coral reef flank­ing the is­land’s shore­lines, is home to hawks­bill tur­tles, nurse sharks, red snap­pers and myr­iad tiny al­gae eaters essen­tial for reef health. Also: an in­va­sive ex-pat known as Indo-Pa­cific red li­on­fish, the rea­son we’re here.

On board, José An­drés sharp­ens a three-pronged spear with a rusty file. The bois­ter­ous Span­ish-Amer­i­can chef was named 2018 James Beard Hu­man­i­tar­ian of the Year for his work pre­par­ing over three mil­lion meals for Puerto Ri­cans in the af­ter­math of Hur­ri­cane Maria; he’s also cred­ited with pop­u­lar­iz­ing tapas in the U.S. with his 31 restau­rants, in­clud­ing the Miche­lin-starred Mini­bar in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. An­drés and some of the world’s most cel­e­brated chefs are here for the Cay­man Cook­out, the is­land’s an­nual binge-booze-and-beach

“Han­dling li­on­fish is like try­ing to wran­gle a por­cu­pine,” says our guide.

ex­trav­a­ganza. He’s also on a mis­sion he hopes will do noth­ing less than res­cue the sea’s threat­ened ecosys­tem. That’s why, at the mo­ment, he’s suit­ing up for a li­on­fish hunt.

As the crew drops off the back of the boat, I strap on flip­pers and a snorkel, a con­tented sur­face dweller peer­ing down on the ac­tion 10 me­tres be­low. Clutch­ing spears and cylin­dri­cal catch con­tain­ers, the divers float in slow mo­tion, scan­ning the reef’s peri­win­kle and pale-yel­low crags and cran­nies for the li­on­fish’s tell­tale stripes and feath­ery mane. An overly fa­mil­iar four-foot nurse shark ar­rives to spi­ral be­tween tor­sos and legs, mo­men­tar­ily dis­tract­ing the group and send­ing this afore­men­tioned sur­face dweller into a mi­nor panic, be­fore slip­ping be­yond the reef’s precipice into the abyss. That’s when a petite, pony­tailed dive guide thrusts her spear into a nook, yanks it back and re­veals her one-pound, cop­per-and­white-striped prize.

Back up on the boat, An­drés is joined by a lo­cal chef named Thomas Ten­nant to pre­pare the catch. “Han­dling li­on­fish is like try­ing to wran­gle a por­cu­pine,” says Ja­son Wash­ing­ton, our guide and the owner of Am­bas­sador Divers, as Ten­nant snaps on la­tex gloves and cuts off the ven­omous spines with shears. The im­pos­ing quills are one rea­son many chefs are re­luc­tant to work with the fish – it’s a lot of work for a lit­tle meat. Din­ers also shy from or­der­ing it, fright­ened off when they hear it’s ven­omous. Push­ing li­on­fish as a del­i­cacy is a tough sell here, even for a chef of An­drés’ cal­i­bre. But to re­duce the preda­tors’ num­bers, it’s essen­tial to serve them up.

Still drip­ping with wa­ter and sud­denly wear­ing a pastel “Live Love Laugh” apron that a fan on board has given him only semi-iron­i­cally, An­drés com­man­deers a blow­torch from Ten­nant and freestyles li­on­fish crudo. He flames the glossy

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