I’ve posted previously about the lionfish invasion that is threatening coral reef and other marine ecosystems throughout the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, and Southern Atlantic Seaboard of the United States. Availability and dissemination of information about the invasion was recently given a big boost through launch of the Invasive Lionfish Web Portal The portal is a collaborative effort of a number of partners, led by the Gulf and Caribbean Fisheries Institute. It is a great resource, providing links to a range of information about the invasion, including journal articles, videos, photos, recipes, a Twitter feed, etc..
Another recent development has been the release of a draft United States National Invasive Lionfish Prevention and Management Plan. Developed by the U.S. Government’s Aquatic Nuisance Species Task Force, the plan is intended to help coordinate the actions of the various government agencies and other stakeholders involved in dealing with the invasion. While such a plan is long overdue, and in that sense is welcome, I’m quite disappointed that the plan largely ignores, and indeed implicitly discourages, an important element of an effective strategy for addressing the invasion – namely the use of market-based approaches.
As I’ve indicated in my previous posts, the Atlantic lionfish invasion is a unique problem that requires innovative solutions. The good news is that there is increasing and encouraging evidence that populations of native species can recover relatively quickly if lionfish numbers are kept in check The question therefore becomes one of how to do this effectively and on a fiscally sustainable basis. I don’t believe that public sector agencies can do it alone, nor can legions of volunteer divers. Successful and sustained removal requires strategies that mobilize a range of stakeholders. A key element is development of markets that create commercial incentives for removals. Ideally, these should also provide livelihood opportunities for the fisher communities that are directly impacted by the threat.
Foremost of these markets is the fisher/seafood seller/restaurant value chain. Promotion of lionfish as a food item has the dual benefit of creating commercial incentives for removals while also raising awareness about the invasion. The growing number of restaurants offering lionfish on their menus is a positive sign and is likely due in good measure to success of “Eat’em to Beat’em” campaigns of NOAA, REEF, and other entities.
However, restaurants and chefs uniformly complain of the difficulty in identifying regular and reliable sources of supply. To address this gap, relevant federal and local agencies should help to encourage the development of a commercial fishery. Unfortunately, the draft Prevention and Management Plan discourages this – indicating that harvest should be used “only as a control measure, not to establish a sustainable market”. I recognize that development/management of a fishery for an invasive species requires different considerations and principles than in the case of species where the objective is to maintain stocks at sustainable levels. But to ignore, and indeed implicitly discourage, development of such a market misses an important fiscally sustainable avenue for control.
On a related note, I would encourage better coordination and consistent messaging from the responsible agencies with respect to human safety considerations in lionfish handling and consumption. The contradictory signals from NOAA (encouraging lionfish consumption) and the FDA (announcing risk of ciguatera food poisoning despite any documented cases of CFP from lionfish and indeed evidence of possible false positives in testing – have caused confusion on the part of chefs and consumers. Promotion of lionfish as a food item already requires a public education effort due to misunderstandings about the difference between poison and venom. This is exacerbated by inconsistent, if not misleading, messaging regarding CFP risk.
An additional market, which I’ve discussed in a number of previous posts, is use of lionfish spines and fins for jewelry and other decorative items. I’ve been pleased to see this market continue to develop, both within Belize and elsewhere. I’ve been happy to play small role in helping to get the market going in the Bahamas, where the Cape Eleuthera Institute is doing great work on education and outreach regarding the lionfish invasion. Artists there have taken the market for decorative items a step further with a new creation – lionfish Christmas Tree ornaments! (see photo above).
As I’ve noted in earlier posts, lionfish jewelry is only a small piece of the puzzle in fighting the invasion, but it is one that offers a number of mutually reinforcing benefits, including raised awareness, increased return to fishers, new livelihood opportunities, and women’s empowerment.
Still other possible markets include use of lionfish for fishmeal or fertilizer. These two markets are largely unexplored and would benefit from funding for research and development. Hopefully the Aquatic Nuisance Species Task Force will take note and will revise the Lionfish Prevention and Management Plan to incorporate encouragement of these and other market-based control approaches.