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. As I’ve noted in earlier posts, it is the general consensus of the scientific and conservation community that eradication of lionfish from the Atlantic is impossible. However, there is growing evidence that systematic removal efforts can be effective in controlling lionfish populations and in reversing their negative impact on reef health. The challenge faced by marine protection agencies and marine resource managers is how to undertake these removals on a regular and financially sustainable basis. I’m convinced that this challenge can best be met by an integrated approach involving coordinated action by public and private actors complemented by the creation of markets for lionfish products.
All of these elements were in evidence at the Lionfish Removal and Awareness Day festival in Pensacola, Florida which I attended last month. Organized by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), the two-day event included a lionfish derby (with more than 8,000 lionfish removed by volunteer divers), lectures about the invasion and the threat that it poses, lionfish cooking and tasting, and sale of lionfish products.
Notable among the sponsors of the event was Whole Foods, which had announced a few weeks earlier that it was going to begin selling lionfish at its stores in California and Florida. The move by whole foods was sparked by the decision late last year of Monterey Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program to list lionfish as a best choice under its sustainable seafood recommendations, citing the invasive nature of the species. As I had noted in a previous post, Seafood Watch had previously declined to list lionfish due to the absence of an established commercial fishery, but to their credit, the group responded to what they described as a “grassroots campaign” and revisited the issue. Moreover, since taking the decision to list lionfish, Seafood Watch has been active in raising awareness about the invasion and in promoting lionfish consumption.
Another sponsor of the Florida festival was Norman’s Lionfish, a newly established seafood supplier focused exclusively on lionfish. Founded by Ryan Chadwick, a New York restaurateur who has been a leading promoter of lionfish consumption, the company seeks to match the growing demand for lionfish with quality supply, sourcing from fishers and divers from Florida and neighboring states. It is fascinating to see a supply chain for lionfish as a seafood item – practically non-existent just a few years ago – springing up in just a matter of a few months.
The Lionfish Removal and Awareness Day festival also provided an opportunity to showcase lionfish jewelry, another product that I’ve written about in previous posts. FWC generously provided a booth to display and sell lionfish jewelry crafted by artists from across the Wider Caribbean. With the help of Blue Ventures Belize; Erin Spencer (a National Geographic young explorer who has developed a website on market approaches to fighting invasive species); and Nancy and Lorne Demers (who are spearheading lionfish control efforts on the island of Mayreau in St. Vincent and the Grenadines), I was able to assemble lionfish jewelry items from a total of nineteen different artists from Belize, Grenada and Mayreau for sale at the Pensacola festival. The inventory included a broad range of styles, designs, and colors, demonstrating the variety of jewelry products that can be derived from lionfish fins, spines, tails, and skin. Not only did we sell just short of ninety items, netting $1,800 for the artists, but we also garnered valuable market intelligence about style and color preferences of U.S. buyers.
The jewelry from Belize was provided by the Belize Women’s Lionfish Jewelry Group, which I’ve written about previously. The Group has advanced quite a bit since their establishment last year. They have decided to operate as a non-profit mutual aid society, purchasing jewelry supplies and materials in bulk, and using the margins on jewelry sales to procure health insurance and to provide other social benefits to jewelry artists. I plan to visit Belize again next month and look forward to learning more about the Group is functioning.
Watch this space for an update!