Emerging from the North Sound amid a rolling swell, Mike Foreman hauls a clear plastic container stuffed with lionfish onto his small motor boat.
It’s a reasonable haul – around 35 fish speared in a 90-minute dusk dive. He was hoping for more, but the sale of the fish should more than cover the cost of the trip.
His wife, Maria Yapelli, also a diver, motors back to the dock, cuts off the venomous spines of the fish and puts them on ice, ready to deliver to local restaurants.
It’s a simple operation, but from these humble beginnings the couple hopes to launch the Caribbean’s first commercial fishery targeting lionfish – a venture that, if successful, could turn the tide in the Atlantic-wide battle against the voracious, invasive predator.
So far, the battle to control lionfish populations has been led largely by volunteer scuba divers armed with nets and pole spears. Suggestions for more sustainable long-term solutions to the environmental menace have all been geared toward government-led and funded operations.
But the prospect of a business targeting the species has raised hopes that a commercial fishery could begin to make more serious inroads in controlling the rapid expansion of lionfish populations.
The couple, from Chicago, moved to Cayman to start the business after Maria suffered a health scare that prompted them to reassess their lives.
They are not here to “get rich” but believe that if they can create a sustainable business culling lionfish, they can make a difference.
Foreman acknowledges that the key to making the business of catching lionfish profitable is the export market. Culling and selling only in Cayman might cover costs, but to make money, and to make a wider impact, he believes they will need fish from all over the Caribbean – and buyers from the U.S.
“The aim is for Cayman to be the hub of the wheel. There is a good transport infrastructure through Cayman Airways, so hopefully we can have fish coming in from Honduras, Panama, Jamaica and some of the surrounding countries.”
The company, Spinion Exports Ltd., has bought warehouse space and is developing a fish processing unit that complies with U.S. health and safety standards. All fish culled in the region will come through the unit before being exported to the U.S. as a product of the Cayman Islands.
The Cayman Islands is also serving as the training ground and research center for the business. Currently, Spinion is experimenting with using teams of two divers in a small rigid-hull inflatable craft and a hookah system that connects the diver with an air source on the surface.
It’s a relatively simple operation that Foreman believes could be replicated at low cost across the region.
“If we can set that up in a few different places and they can each get me 100-200 pounds every week, the math starts to work.
“With roughly 1,000 pounds a week, we could be clearing $30,000 a month and covering salaries and overheads comfortably.”
On the export side, the venture will seek to market lionfish as a guilt-free food to environmentally conscious diners in the U.S.
“Right now, demand outstrips supply so the price point is high. There are markets in California and elsewhere in the U.S. where people are influenced by environmental decisions – that can drive the price up for high-end restaurants. This is a fish that people can eat and feel good about.”
Lionfish currently go for around $16 a pound for whole fish in the U.S., more than triple the price in Cayman.
Foreman said he had several restaurants interested in repeat orders but needed to complete the processor and ensure he could meet the demand before signing any deals.
He has taken on two Caymanians on a part-time basis and hopes the business will grow to the point where he can hire full-time staff.
“It is satisfying to have people from the community involved in the business, and hopefully it can grow. There are still a number of people in Cayman who would rather be working on the sea than in a lawyer’s office or a government office. We want to get to the point where we can pay people a decent wage to do that.
“We didn’t come here to get rich. We feel pretty good about it from an environmental standpoint, we enjoy diving and it’s pretty satisfying work.
“We’re not going to try to maximize profits by having people cutting fish for 12 hours a day for minimum wage.”
Foreman says there is potential for the business, and its environmental impact, to expand. He said they are working with a local partner to try to design a trap to catch lionfish that would eliminate by-catch and enable them to target fish at different depths in a much less labor-intensive way.
“We haven’t even set anything up in the Sister Islands yet, we haven’t gone out to the banks or started putting down traps,” he said.
“At that point, it becomes a different level of business – it’s ‘Deadliest Catch Caribbean.’”