This week, I had the fun task of interviewing the chef and owner of Gynn’AK restaurant: Gynna Sainz, also known as the Lionfish Hunter! This brave Akumal local knows her way around the water better than anyone else, hunting the invasive lionfish species in the reefs just off the coast of the Riviera Maya to use as a main ingredient at her restaurant.
Many Riviera Maya locals know that although lionfish are beautiful to look at, they’re not native to this part of the world. Lionfish sit at the top of their food chain, so their presence takes a huge toll on the coral reef wildlife while the lionfish quickly grow in number and take over the area.
In March, Gynna won first place at the Lionfish Hunt Challenge 2013 in Curacao, a pretty big deal! After the interview, it’s safe to say that the Lionfish Hunter is one of the most fascinating people I’ve come across. Not only is Gynna originally from Akumal, but her grandfather was the founder of Akumal and the Riviera Maya!
How did you get into lionfish hunting?
One day on my regular morning dive at The Akumal Dive Center, our trusted divemaster Chepo told me that morning that there were lionfish and we had to hunt them because they were not from here. (They’re an invasive species.) So he taught me how to use a Hawaiian sling, and from then on I began to make my own hunting spears and taught my team members how to hunt and make their spears, too. Now we have a whole team (Team Akumal, Lionfish Hunter of Akumal) that hunts together on the weekends, while I hunt throughout the week.
I normally scuba dive when hunting, although sometimes I go free diving. But not in Akumal! Here, I’ve pretty much cleaned the lionfish out of the area!
What are some of the dangers of lionfish hunting?
The dangers of lionfish hunting are obviously getting stung, but I don’t worry too much about that because it seems like I have developed some sort of tolerance or immunity to the sting. I get stung all the time, and as I like to put it, “No pasa nada!” (Nothing happens!)
Another danger is getting decompression from diving because some days there are just so many fish that I just wanna stay there forever hunting!!! And I like to dive deep!
A third danger is running out of air because (as I often say) sometimes there are just so many fish that I wanna “just get one more!” It’s very tempting to stick around, but I wear a dive computer and all is good. Safe dive planning is key!
About how many lionfish do you catch on a normal day?
On a “normal” day out of Akumal I catch 5-10 lionfish. In the beginning I was hunting 20 – 40 lionfish in one dive. Like I mentioned before, I have the Akumal area clean of lionfish (mission accomplished!), but when we go with the whole team on weekends we go further away from Akumal, and we get about 20 in one dive. Sometimes I rent a boat out of some other towns north of Akumal that don’t have hunters (only us) and we hit the mother load! Our record catch is 70 lionfish in one dive by the whole team!
What was the biggest challenge of your recent competition in Curacao? (Congrats, by the way!)
My biggest challenge in the Curacao tournament was probably shore diving from a small beach between the cliffs on the north side, where the waves are BIG. (I come from a beach where no waves exist!) Getting into and out of the ocean with the big waves knocking me around just made my heart pound! Waves going over my head knocking me over on the rocky beach and no air in my tank coming in from the shore dive. SCARRRRRYYYY!!! But it was thrilling and I would do it again in a heartbeat!
How was hunting in Curacao different from hunting in Akumal?
First of all, we were Shore Dive Category, so a LONG swim out to reach the wall drop off was long and tiring. Here in the Riviera Maya we boat dive. The reefs are different here because we are not an island, so Curacao had very nice wall dives, lively with fish! And a lot more lionfish than Akumal.
Are there any special precautions to take when preparing/cooking lionfish at your restaurant?
The face/head of the lionfish is hard as a helmet and has very rough sharp features, so your fingers can get cut. Also, it’s best (although I don’t worry about it) to detoxify the lionfish before filleting so that you won’t get stung if you poke your fingers on the spikes. I like to either freeze the lionfish and at the end of the week they get filleted, or put them on ice for 45 min before filleting. FYI: Now the biologists are saying that the venom is protein based, so freezing just preserves the venom… but I’ve never run into any problem filleting them after freezing or putting them on ice, and neither have the cleaning/filleting crew.
I see you have some pretty cool fusion cuisine at Gynn’AK. What kind of dishes do you make with the lionfish? Which one is the most popular?
I can cook lionfish ANY way! Fish is fish! And it’s FRESH! Lionfish ceviche, lionfish tempura sushi rolls, lionfish sashimi, whole lionfish cooked any way you like it, lionfish ‘n chips, beer batter lionfish tacos with a slice of avocado and fresh chopped cilantro on a handmade corn tortilla, Thai Fusion style with a little lemongrass, curry, citrus and coconut milk… and the ALL FAMOUS AND FAVORITE at Gynn’AK: cilantro, lime and tequila flambéed lionfish tacos, served with a slice of avocado, topped with more fresh cilantro and a squeeze of lime, a side of Thai slaw and our house chipotle tamarind sauce!
Akumal is just so beautiful! It’s pretty ecological, or at least it’s rolling in that way… and there are so many nature activities to do. Open water diving, cave diving, cenote/cavern diving and swimming, the jungle, the beaches, snorkeling, good restaurants, nice people, bike riding, jogging, walking, climbing trees, exploring new caves, rescuing animals and SAVING THE REEF! EAT MORE LIONFISH!