“Of all the titles I’ve held, hunter feels the least natural.” When hunting and killing marine life is a good thing. Plus, don’t ever waste the catch — a sumptuous recipe for lionfish ceviche!
Story and Photos by (and courtesy of) Jade Prévost-Manuel
Eyesclosed, face down and no sudden movements—I’m reaching deep for one last steadied breath, gripping my spear before diving below the waves off quiet Holetown, Barbados. Twenty feet below swims an alien invader that makes the work of local marine biologists a living nightmare. The wing-like fins of a lionfish unfurl on either side of its bloated, tiger-striped body puttering above the reef.
I make my way down towards the animal at what feels like a crawl.
Five feet. Ten feet. Fifteen Feet. Twenty.
A pink pool donut repurposed into a dive float hovers overhead. It keeps me safe from jet skis and boats, as does my spotter—my longtime Trinidadian boyfriend, Louis. I’m now deep enough that as I loop my thumb through the elastic cord and slide it down the three-pronged pole spear, I can feel the tension building, both in the weapon’s shaft and in the shrinking space between me and the so-called enemy.
Time seems to stop for a moment. It dawns on me that of all the titles I’ve held, “hunter” feels the least natural. Off-brand, my friends back home would say. But here in Barbados, the lionfish hunt is a clean-up effort water folks take upon themselves to protect one of the island’s most beloved natural features—its reefs.
A journey to the Caribbean’s eastern-most island nation
Nearly 300,000 people inhabit the pear-shaped island of Barbados, and for a while, I temporarily joined them. I had been holed up for the last year in Canada’s London, separated from my nearest and dearest, and bound by the country’s closed borders and the threat of COVID-19. I was certain back in the days of “two weeks to flatten the curve” that I’d return to the Caribbean by September 2020, at the latest.
It was the region that raised me, a place where I’d lived a childhood snorkelling shallow reefs and paddling through mangroves, before swapping the heat of the West Indies for the cold of Southwestern Ontario. I’d reached a point in my life where I was consumed with a desire to go back, to encounter another island that could feel like home.
The next 12 months were a waiting game where I refreshed travel-related COVID news daily like a Kanye superfan waiting for the Donda album to drop. And when it became clear that Trinidad and Tobago, the country I’d hoped to make my way towards, had no plans to let visitors in anytime soon, I set my sights on the closest island 300 kilometres to its northeast.
Barbados felt like a breath of fresh air after a long year spent indoors. Bordered by calm seafoam waters off its western coast and stomach-churning Atlantic swells that slam the east, it is an island truly born of the sea. It’s not just surrounded by coral—it was built by it.
Formed by upward-growing corals, Barbados’ unique landscape is marked by formations of porous rock, limestone gulleys (valley-type landforms created by running water) and the fossilized remnants of marine life past.
Two flights, multiple COVID-19 nasal swabs and a seven-day quarantine later, the pandemic-caused physical rift between myself and the Caribbean had finally healed. I’d come to the island with an unformulated plan to take a step back from work, to banish all (realistically, as much as I could) contact with electronic screens in the pursuit of peace of mind.
“There were times it was easy to think Andre was more fish than man. No creature was too elusive for him to spot, and his knowledge of the ocean and its inhabitants went far beyond what any diver’s manual could teach you”
It was that mentality, as well as the combination of the island’s cerulean blue waters and its incredibly kind people, that set a lifelong plan of mine into motion. I decided I’d spend the next three months training underwater to become a PADI Divemaster, a high-school-era scuba goal that university and the eventual busyness of pre-COVID life had pushed to the back burner.
That’s how I found myself working and studying four days a week at local scuba shop Barbados Blue, a yellow concrete bungalow and diving hub that looked out onto Carlisle Bay Marine Park. Loved by water dwellers not only for its proximity to shore and the promise of moray eels, green turtles and the occasional seahorse, Carlisle Bay is also home to six coral-encrusted shipwrecks, most of them sunk shallow enough for even new divers to explore.
Day in and day out, our crew of lively Barbadians (also known as Bajans) and expats who lived and breathed ocean living boarded a well-loved pontoon barge named the Melissa 2 to coast into the park.
Melissa 2 was a vibrant blue workhorse chock-full of character, wrapped in unfurling yellow rope and the ferry that would-be divers boarded daily to explore the bay. Below the surface, we spent our days weaving through the bellows of the coral-encrusted Bajan Queen, navigating fragile patch reefs decorated with frogfish, and fending off the curious Sergeant Major fish that called the Berwyn shipwreck home.
On the boat, we’d split oranges amongst ourselves before sitting for lessons on the Bajan lexicon from our captain Jaden, and engaging in lively debates on whether or not you should freeze cheese in the tropics. Hunting lionfish was somewhat of a rite of passage for staff at Barbados Blue and a source of pride for the shop’s Bajan owner, a fast-talking waterman named Andre.
A marine biologist by trade, Andre said he had been trying for years to convince more folks to consume lionfish. He’d had to get creative to do it. Andre had come up with a line no one could refuse, and one that had apparently helped keep the numbers in check.
“Ever hear that eating lionfish, you know, makes your back strong,” he told us over a bottle of Banks beer at a bar on the southwest coast, speaking in male anatomy-related code.
I’d only known him a few days by then, but I knew that what lay behind those blue wrap-around sunglasses he rarely removed was a scandalous twinkle of the eye.
“I’ll take credit for that one.”
There were times it was easy to think that Andre was more fish than man. No creature was too elusive for him to spot, and his knowledge of the ocean and its inhabitants went far beyond what any diver’s manual could teach you. The sea had been his life, his love, and his lady — as 70s pop band Looking Glass would have put it — for decades.
But lionfish, slow-moving carnivorous animals with an artillery of venomous spines that can cause unbearable pain, were putting the ecosystem at risk. Native to the Indo-Pacific, for decades they’ve been a beloved aquarium species that made their way around the world in tanks.
Unfortunately, they’d somehow ended up in the Atlantic. Whether they were introduced intentionally or accidentally, no one knows for sure. But what experts knew for certain was that since then, they’d become top predators on coral reefs throughout the Caribbean.
Lionfish aren’t picky eaters—they’re known to eat more than 50 species of fish, some of which are crucially important to economies and ecosystems like parrotfish, snapper and grouper. They’re also skilled hunters with virtually no natural predators. (For more information on lionfish as an invasive species problem, you can check out the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) webpage “Impacts of Invasive Lionfish.”)
Add that to the fact they can reproduce yearlong with females, releasing about two million eggs a year, and there’s good reason why scientists fear they could collapse ecosystems. To wander onto the beach with a speared lionfish was to encounter at least one person who would shake their head, wag their finger, and turn in the other direction.
An introduction to the hunt on Folkestone’s Outskirts
It was for that reason that hunting lionfish had become a practice popular among the thrillseekers, the daredevils, if you will.
In the more southern waters in and around Carlisle Bay, where most of Barbados Blue’s scuba operations took place, the creatures seemed to be present in lower numbers—or at least more elusive.
I learned one blisteringly hot Tuesday afternoon that prime hunting grounds lay farther to the north on the outskirts of the Folkestone Marine Reserve.
The mid-afternoon heat blazed upon me and the rest of the dive staff mulling aboard sleek Mojito, the newest vessel in the shop’s fleet. We were waiting for Ryan and Nick, two free-divers and Rescue scuba students who lived on the island and, of their own volition, had developed a passion for killing lionfish.
Their dedication to venturing out into Folkestone Marine Park every chance they got was an indicator of their passion, but the sophisticated spear gun and thick handling gloves were the evidence. I hadn’t planned to join them when they came with hunting gear instead of rescue manuals. After all, I’d shown up for an afternoon of what I thought would be practising drowning diver scenarios and helping teach them CPR.
That changed when we reached the rolling waves off Folkestone. Ryan tossed me a zookeeper, the catch container for storing lionfish, as we geared up on deck.
“Alright Jade, you’re up,” he said as he performed a back roll off the starboard side of the boat. “Try not to get poked.”
Two-parts fascinated and one-part nervous, I joined him at a depth of 50 feet, timidly holding the Zookeeper so that my ungloved hands stayed as far from the container’s mouth as possible. I’d heard about the damage that a loose lionfish spine could do.
I was all for conservation—I’d studied it in school, planted trees, worked on turtle conservation projects, and always tried to be a steward of the environment. But I’d never thought about killing for the sake of conversation, let alone participating in an effort of that kind.
Like a humanoid eel, Ryan slithered between rocks, upside down at times to peer under ledges. His first kill came 10 minutes later and seemed to be over before it began. Ascending at a controlled pace, he approached me with a gape-mouthed lionfish at the tip of his spear.
I held out the catch container between my hands as Ryan pushed the dead lionfish to the bottom of the cylinder, quickly darting off to find another before our air reserves dwindled too low.
Looking down at the fish, it was hard to believe that something so beautiful could be so terrible for the reef. Throughout much of the Caribbean, it was encouraged to shoot them on site. My hesitancy to do the same had come from a philosophical question I had yet to answer—could killing an animal be (or feel) honourable if it was in the name of a greater good?
But watching Ryan’s interaction with the animal had surprised me. I couldn’t help but think how much more humane this encounter felt to me than ripping a fish from the ocean with a line. There was an intimacy in this hunt, one that did, in fact, feel more honourable.
Since I’d arrived in Barbados, I’d been fascinated with the idea of living off the land. From the mango tree in our backyard, I baked scores of banana breads for my coworkers at the shop and my neighbours. I’d stumbled upon nutmeg in the forest I used as a garnish for pancakes and rum punch.
And in the clear cylinder I had slung carefully around my shoulder was a creature I could think of as another local ingredient—one whose removal from the reefs didn’t harm them but actually helped them.
Time resumed in the waters off Holetown, evident by the shifting numbers on my dive computer: 45 seconds, then 55, then a minute, each increment accompanied by a building pressure in my lungs.
With a quick release of my spear, I struck my prey. Finning to the surface of the aquamarine chop with what little breath I had left, I held my spear out of the water to show Louis my catch. Its scales shone a deep Tuscan red as I carefully slid it into the juice jug we had MacGyvered into a catch container.
A few more lionfish and we’d have all the ingredients for fish taco night with our neighbours.
I’d always found hunting for sport, and not for survival, an unbecoming idea. But there was something special about joining a local hunting effort that worked to preserve the island’s ecosystems for generations to come.
It felt like a way of giving back to the people and country that had so graciously welcomed me, and if we could plate each fish into a tasty meal—one cooked from a truly sustainable food source that kept ecologically important fish on the reefs—all the better.
I clear my mask, push back a mane of salty hair, and look down at the two lionfish circling a brain coral below me. With eyes closed, face down, no sudden movements and one swift fin kick, I return to the depths. ♦
RECIPE | Spear-Caught Caribbean Lionfish Ceviche
By Jade Prévost-Manuel
When it comes to whipping up a Caribbean-style ceviche, many cooks and food enthusiasts turn to Mahi-Mahi and Conch as their raw protein. But Lionfish — a surprisingly tasty and non-native fish genus that has taken over Caribbean waters — gives both critters a run for their money.
These scarlet-maroon reef invaders are popular aquarium fish native to the Indo-Pacific. Since their accidental introduction to the Atlantic less than 50 years ago, likely by way of the aquarium trade, they’ve become top predators of Atlantic coral reef systems.
In the reef systems that span the southern United States and Caribbean, lionfish have the potential to wipe out the fish that reefs rely on to survive. It’s a destruction that’s largely gone unchecked. That’s because lionfish are skilled hunters with few natural predators — not to mention an artillery of venomous spines few humans would dare touch.
But beneath their tiger-striped and venom-lad exterior lies a tender white meat similar to grouper in flavour and texture. Once de-spined and fileted, a lionfish can form the basis of a succulent ceviche that forms the perfect appetizer for a beach picnic or cocktail party.
Lionfish are hard to target using fishing line, so they’re best killed at the tip of a spear. Lucky for those out to catch them, they don’t generally recognize humans as predators which allows spearfisherman to approach them at extraordinarily close range.
If you’re doing the shooting, you’ll want to aim at the head. On reef clean-up missions, many divers and fishermen agree it’s worth investing in a Zookeeper or similar containment unit that allow you to store your catch safely without risking an accidental poke from a venomous spine.
- 2 large lionfish (11 inches each, or ½ pound)
- 3 large limes, Juiced
- ½ large red onion, diced
- 2 green onions, diced
- 1 tomato, cubed
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- 1 tsp. cilantro (or chadon beni)
- 1 pinch ground pepper
- 1/4 tsp. Caribbean Pepper Sauce
- Using a pair of thick gloves, long tongs, and a sharp set of kitchen scissors, despine your lionfish. Start by removing the spines along the dorsal fin (13 in total), followed by those on both pelvic fins and the anal fin. In total, there are 18 venomous spines to remove. For good measure, snip off the tail and any remaining appendages. Remember that the spines are still venomous even AFTER they’ve been removed from the animal.
- To gut your fish, make an incision at the belly and cut along the bottom towards the head. Remove entrails and repeat for the second fish.
- After gutting the fish, filet it by slowly skimming your knife along the spine to remove as much meat as possible. Slice each filet into thin strips before dicing them into cubes and setting aside.
- In a medium-sized bowl, mix the lime juice, salt, ground pepper, Caribbean pepper sauce and cilantro. For pepper sauce, a blend that incorporates scotch bonnet peppers and chadon beni—also known as cilantro, or Mexican coriander—will add a tasteful dose of spice.
- Add the diced fish to the bowl and mix until the lionfish is coated in the lime juice mixture.
- As the lionfish cubes begin to cure, dice your tomatoes, green onion, and red onion, adding them to the bowl. Mix well and refrigerate 1 to 2 hours before serving. ♦
Jaedon Prévost-Manuel is a Canadian multimedia journalist and you can see more of her stories at www.jadeprevostmanuel.com