Citizen Science in Belize: Part 2/2 – If You Can’t Beat’em, Eat’em

Photo by Alexander Vasenin

Lionfish sushi – Photo © World Lionfish Hunters Association (click on photo to visit their website)

In Part 1 of this post I talked 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.  Scientists, environmental groups and governments that are studying the problem have all come to the conclusion that it is probably impossible to eradicate lionfish in the Atlantic – they are here to stay. However, studies show that lionfish population can be effectively controlled through management. Culling, such as that being undertaken by ReefCI, is one approach. In some countries, governments and/or NGOs have offered bounties to fishermen who capture lionfish. Elsewhere, divers are enlisted for lionfish derbies, with prizes awarded to those who bring in the most and/or largest fish. While these efforts certainly are beneficial, it is doubtful that they can be sustainable, in the long term. Rather, it is necessary to establish a more economically viable approach, through development of commercial fisheries for the species. The good news is that lionfish is very tasty. I can attest to this myself! Through the efforts of various groups (including Reef Environmental Education Foundation, which has developed a lionfish cookbook), lionfish is being promoted as a menu item. The bad news is that lionfish are not readily caught using traditional methods such as lines or nets. Fisherman must use other methods such as spearing or hand netting. This may work at an artisanal level, serving local markets, but can it be scaled up to commercial level? At least one entrepreneur seems to think so. Traditional Fisheries, which was established by an American businessman, is working with fisherman’s cooperatives in several countries to catch, process, and export lionfish. Fishermen are provided with the necessary training to capture the fish by spearing. I very much like this approach, as it involves the very local communities whose livelihoods are threatened by the lionfish invasion. Established initially in the Yucatan, in Mexico, the company is now working with cooperatives in the Dominican Republic as well, and recently assisted a cooperative in Southern Belize in making its first export shipment.

Photo © (click on photo to visit their website)

Hopefully, this approach can be replicated in other areas impacted by the invasion. The key will be to provide sufficient economic return to fisherman. Unless the economic value of catching lionfish can be increased, fisherman prefer to focus on other species which they can catch using traditional methods. During my stay in Belize, I came up with a novel idea that I’m hoping might help to address this. While other volunteers and I were dissecting lionfish, I was thinking about the problem of how to incentivize fisherman to go after them. I was looking at the dissected fish carcasses, particularly at the spines, and for some reason a vision of porcupine quill jewelry popped into my head. I asked the ReefCI marine biologist whether anyone had thought about using the lionfish spines in some way. He wasn’t aware of any such use, but thought it to be a very interesting idea. He and I collected and cleaned and dried a couple hundred spines, which have been given to some local artisans to see if they might be able to do something with them. We provided pictures (thanks to Google) of a number of porcupine quill jewelry items. I personally spoke to one artisan (from a Mayan community) who is already making jewelry from shells and fish bones. He was really excited about the lionfish spine idea. Since returning home, I have learned that there is one artist, in Florida, USA, who is already making jewelry from lionfish tails, so the idea of using spines may not be too far-fetched. Hopefully the lionfish spine jewelry initiative will take off in Belize. If so, it could be spread elsewhere – ideally by local artisans.

Feel free to share any other ideas on how to address the lionfish invasion. And readers in the western hemisphere look for lionfish on the menu when you next go to a seafood restaurant. It really is delicious! Eat lionfish – save a reef.

24 thoughts on “Citizen Science in Belize: Part 2/2 – If You Can’t Beat’em, Eat’em

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  9. Looking forward to the fundraiser for ReefCI that has lionfish spine art products and creations to encourage this clever, elegant and very implementable solution to a very vexing problem of an effective invasive species. Please keep up the great work.

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