Islamorada Dive Center Owner Eric Billips has become one of the de facto experts in the nation when it comes to the eradication of lionfish over the past 10 years.
“I’ve been here in the Keys on ground zero since they got here, and have been taking care of them ever since,” he said.
Back in 2008, Billips became the second person in the Keys to harvest a lionfish. At one point he held the record for the largest lionfish harvested (speared at Alligator Reef). Billips and REEF’S Lad Akins have also starred in a documentary – about lionfish. In the film, Akins provided the science expertise while Billips discussed hunting the pesky fish. Nowadays, he’s supplying restaurants through the Keys and the nation with fresh lionfish.
Word travels fast in the world of invasive fish species, apparently, and it wasn’t long before Billips’ expertise caught the attention of a producer for the cooking show “The F Word,” starring renowned hot-head and Michelin star chef Gordon Ramsay.
Ramsay was going to be in Miami for a Cuban food event. One of his producers, knowing he was a diver in the United Kingdom, thought of a spear fishing segment for the new show. So they reached out to Billips.
“Gordon ate up the lionfish idea – he’s a scuba diver, and it’s an invasive species, so he was all about it,” said Billips.
The segment was filmed in March and aired in June. In the segment, Billips and his fiance, Grace Langs, accompany Ramsay to spear lionfish off of Islamorada. After catching several, Ramsay and the Billipses returned dockside to enjoy Ramsay’s Caribbean fish curry.
On the way back to shore, however, another idea for a segment was born. While chatting with Ramsay about invasive species in south Florida, Billips mentioned the influx in the number of Burmese pythons in the Everglades and how he and his neighbor sometimes go out snake hunting.
“At the end of the day the producer comes over and mentions my python idea I pitched to Gordon. A little times goes by and he shoots me an email saying that Gordon wouldn’t stop talking about the python thing, and that he wants to do another segment,” said Billips.
No expert on snake hunting, Billips and his neighbor, Jason Catarineau, spent the next month practicing.
“We went out three times a week at night to the trails along the Everglades to hunt pythons to get prepared for the segment,” he said. “It got to the point where we had caught a couple, so then we brought in Kyle Penniston to help hunt.”
Both Catarineau and Penniston would star as the episode’s “resident experts” on pythons. Penniston is part of South Florida Water Management District’s Python Elimination Program and knows the area well.
“We did a little wading into the water looking to see if we could find anything down there, but we needed Kyle to go down by the levies,” said Catarineau. “The best part about the experience was how cool Gordon and his son were. They are great people and a lot of fun to be around.”
Billips and Catarineau’s families would later be invited to Los Angeles to attend the live filming of an episode. As they were leaving, Billips again discussed a future episode, based on feeding hammerhead and harvesting conchs, with one of the producers after suggesting the idea to Gordon.
“Gordon’s exact words were, ‘You’re f***** nuts,’” laughed Billips. “But as he’s walking away, he looks over his shoulder, and says, ‘Let’s do it.’”
The Summer of Gordon may never end.