In Part 1 of this post I wrote about my recent visit to Belize to help with further development of the nascent market for lionfish jewelry; one of several market-based approaches to addressing the threat to Southwest Atlantic marine ecosystems posed by the invasion of this non-native species. I noted that the market is most advanced in the area around Punta Gorda, in Southern Belize, in large measure due to the support provided by ReefCI which has provided training on jewelry making to a group of local women and is supplying them with lionfish spines, fins, and tails as well as marketing assistance.
While ReefCI’s involvement has been instrumental in getting things started, further development and expansion of the market will require engagement with artisans and women’s groups in other parts of the country, particularly areas closer to major tourist markets. Interventions are also needed to develop a reliable and sustainable supply chain for lionfish jewelry production and sales. I was pleased to hear from one of the jewelry makers in Punta Gorda that a local fisherman had approached her about selling lionfish tails. This was music to my ears, as one of the motivations behind the lionfish jewelry idea has been to up return to fishers in order to create added commercial incentive for them to hunt lionfish (the fish cannot be caught using conventional fishing methods such as hook and line or nets, but must instead be speared or hand-netted by diving).
An important target community for engaging with fishers and for development of an additional center of jewelry production is Sarteneja, a fishing village in the northernmost part of Belize. Sarteneja is the base of operations in Belize for Blue Ventures, an NGO that focuses on marine conservation and improvement of livelihoods of fisher communities and has been doing great work to educate local fishers about lionfish and to help develop a commercial market. I had been corresponding and sharing information for several months with Jen Chapman, Blue Ventures’ dynamic Country Program Director (click here for a nice documentary about her work with the fisher community) and had agreed to help organize a workshop to introduce lionfish jewelry to women’s groups in Sarteneja.
Prior to the workshop, I spent a week at Blue Venture’s field research station in the Bacalar Chico Marine Reserve. Like ReefCI, Blue Ventures does regular culling and dissections of lionfish and collects data on population density, size, sex, and prey composition. It was encouraging to find that the magnitude of the lionfish infestation on that part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef is much lower than in the Sapodilla Cayes, where ReefCI is based. The lionfish culling dives I joined during my week at Bacalar Chico yielded only about half a dozen fish per dive as compared to the 30+ often speared during dives in the South. It was none-the-less interesting to learn new marine research techniques and to share information about lionfish behavior with Jen and Blue Ventures’ other two resident marine biologists at the field station. I also showed them the techniques that I have learned for drying and preservation of lionfish spines and fins (I discussed these in Part 1 of this post), and prepared a supply for use in the workshop in Sarteneja. An added bonus, from a science perspective, was the opportunity to assist with the necropsy of a very young pilot whale calf which, judging from the bite marks on its back, appeared to have been killed by a shark.
Following the week at Bacalar Chico I traveled to Sarteneja with Jen. We were joined by Jo Scott-Smith from ReefCI and Palovi Baezar, the Punta Gorda jeweler who pioneered lionfish jewelry production in Belize and has been generously sharing her experience. Together we delivered a half-day workshop that was attended by about 10 local women. Palovi did a fantastic job in demonstrating and assisting the ladies with jewelry making techniques. Her background as a school teacher was very evident. None of the participants had any prior experience with jewelry making, but by the end of the workshop each went away with at least two pairs of earrings they crafted with Palovi’s help. I even managed, with her help (and despite my total lack of artistic talent) to make a pendant from a lionfish tail that I had dyed blue prior to the workshop!
What I particularly liked about Palovi’s approach was that she showed the ladies how to make jewelry using materials that are readily available locally. She had brought along a few commercially produced earring hooks and crimps, but she also taught the participants how to make hooks from fishing wire and crimps from pieces of tin cans. She also explained and demonstrated use of scented nail polish remover to eliminate the smell of the dried spines and fins, and pointed them to materials (e.g. boat varnish) that can substitute for jewelry resin as a sealant.
During my two and a half week stay in Belize, I had a number of opportunities to meet together with the key stakeholders involved in development of the lionfish jewelry market there and to brainstorm how to further advance the market, particularly with a view towards international sales. We plan to work together to develop a business plan which will include establishment of an “official Belize lionfish jewelry” brand for use in sales through shops at the international airport and eventually export channels. On the production side, the plan is to work with women’s groups in some additional parts of the country, offering training and helping to link them to sources of spines and fins.
I believe that the process that we’re following in Belize (workshops + supply of materials and initial marketing assistance) is one that could easily be replicated in other countries. I have already shared some of the lessons we’ve learned with conservation groups in Bonaire, the Grenadines, the Bahamas and Mexico.
While development of the market for jewelry is obviously only one piece of larger Regional and country-specific strategies required for addressing the lionfish invasion, it is one that can offer a number of mutually reinforcing benefits, including raised awareness, increased return to fishers, new livelihood opportunities, and women’s empowerment.
Stay tuned for further updates.