Controlling Invasive Lionfish – Update on Market Solutions: Part 2/2 — Lionfish Art

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Array of dried lionfish spines and tails -ready for jewelry use Credit: ReefCI

In Part 1 of this post regarding market-based solutions to fighting 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, I wrote about the challenge of developing commercially sustainable strategies for undertaking the systematic removals that are needed to keep lionfish populations under control. I discussed the need to develop a series of vertical markets, pointing to promotion of lionfish as a seafood choice as the most obvious of these. Capture of juvenile lionfish for the aquarium trade as another.  A third market, and one in which I’m personally involved, is use of lionfish spines and tails for jewelry and other decorative items.  I’ve been really excited to see this starting to take off since I first wrote about it last summer. Moreover, it’s been interesting and fun to experiment with different preservation and treatment techniques for lionfish spines and tails and to learn about jewelry-making techniques and marketing strategies. Among other sources, I’ve received very helpful advice on preservation from a local taxidermist.  Who would have thought that Fabreze could be used to eliminate the fishy smell! Or that food coloring could be used to restore the brilliant orange color of the spines and tails (the natural color gets bleached out during sun drying)

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Lionfish tail earrings from Palovi Baezar, Punta Gorda Belize Credit: ReefCI

In Belize, lionfish jewelry is now being crafted in two locations, each with its own distinct designs and styles. In the Southern town of Punta Gorda, Palovi Baezar, who I wrote about in my earlier post, continues to make beautiful earrings using both lionfish spines and tails and has generously been sharing her experience with other artisans and members of the local community.  Together with ReefCI, Palovi has organized workshops for local women, who receive training on lionfish jewelry design and production as well as a supply of spines and jewelry fittings to get them started.   In another part of Belize, Khadjija (Kaj) Assales is producing gorgeous lionfish tail jewelry which she is selling through her boutique.  She has received support from Jen Chapman (Blue Ventures) who has helped connect her with the local fisher cooperative for supply of tails.  Check out this great TV interview with the two of them (click on the April 15 show; interview begins at the 1:10.48 minutes mark).   I’m headed down to Belize again next month to brainstorm with the ReefCI team, Jen, Palovi, Kaj and other stakeholders re how to further develop the supply chain for lionfish jewelry and to explore the possibility of establishing some type of consortium or association for sales to export markets.

The lionfish jewelry idea is catching on in other countries, as well. I’m aware of initiatives in Jamaica, Aruba, Puerto Rico, and Mexico. The United States Virgin Islands’ Invasive Lionfish Management Response Plan  mentions lionfish jewelry as one of the market options for supporting control efforts (see page 32, para 1).   I’ve been providing information and advice to a group in St. Vincent and the Grenadines that is putting together a plan for export sales of lionfish fillets + production of jewelry.

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Caption: Lionfish spine earrings from Wings of Sin Credit: Wings of Sin

Turning to the U.S. market, Maria Hickerson (whose jewelry I mentioned in an earlier post) continues to produce lionfish tail jewelry for sale both through her website and other channels.  Her jewelry is perhaps the most refined of all of the lionfish jewelry being produced so far.  She has developed a somewhat complicated preservation process for the tails, rendering them beautifully translucent.  While the resulting jewelry is exquisite, I’m reluctant to advocate use of the technique in the Caribbean and Central America as it involves use of some pretty strong chemicals, with associated need for proper safety precautions and arrangements for safe disposal, and am instead suggesting sun drying. Nevertheless, her jewelry provides a nice model and inspiration for other artists.

In my earlier post on lionfish jewelry, I mentioned my plan to contact artists who were already selling jewelry made from porcupine quills via the Etsy e-commerce platform, in hopes that they might be interested in experimenting with lionfish spines and tails. The strategy turned out to be more successful than I could have imagined.  I contacted about three dozen Etsy shop-owners, sending them photos of lionfish spines and tails and of finished jewelry items, together with information about the lionfish invasion and the threat that it poses to Atlantic marine ecosystems. Several replied almost immediately, expressing enthusiasm about the prospect of being able to use their art to help the environment. In all, about a third of those that I contacted requested samples of spines and tails to experiment with.  I’ve provided initial samples free of charge (thanks to supply provided by the team at ReefCI) in return for an agreement that they would include a conservation message as part of the marketing of finished items.  So far, five Etsy shops have added lionfish jewelry to their offerings, with at least another four planning to do so in future (In addition to the Etsy shops that I have been personally working with, another, out of Puerto Rico is also selling lionfish spine jewelry via the Etsy platform).  Several of the shops have pledged to donate a percentage of sales to marine conservation. What has been interesting is the diversity in genre and target demographic of the shops that have taken up the opportunity.  While most emphasize their love of nature, there are others that target a darker demographic for which the spikiness of lionfish spines and the association with a deadly predator is the appeal.

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Lionfish tail earrings from Kaj Expressions, Placencia, Belize Credit: Kaj Expressions

My next step is to look for inroads beyond these initial niche markets. In my earlier post, I mentioned aquarium and zoo gifts shops as one possible outlet.  Dive shops and cruise ships could be another.

While upping economic incentives for removal of lionfish (along with income generation for fishers and communities impacted by the invasion) remains the key motivation behind the jewelry initiative, I’m realizing that public education and awareness raising about the threat posed by the invasion may ultimately be a more realistic outcome.

Lionfish spine earrings from Gypsy Piper Girl

Lionfish spine earrings from Gypsy Piper Girl









In the course of looking more closely at this dimension, I’ve come across several interesting initiatives that are drawing on other art forms to raise awareness about the lionfish invasion. In Tulum, Mexico, a group of artists have painted a huge mural and are producing videos to highlight the issue.  Nearby, in Akumal, another group is planning a documentary series to highlight the invasion.  Perhaps the most interesting initiative I’ve come across is a video from Eleuthera, in the Bahamas, which features a group of school children who are helping to spread the word about lionfish. Check out their “Go away lionfish” song at the 4:40 minute mark. Priceless!

More updates to come after my trip to Belize next month.


14 thoughts on “Controlling Invasive Lionfish – Update on Market Solutions: Part 2/2 — Lionfish Art

  1. Pingback: Citizen Science in Belize – Update on Lionfish Jewelry: Part 1 | Raxa Collective

  2. Pingback: Citizen Science in Belize – Update on Lionfish Jewelry: Part 2 | Raxa Collective

  3. Hi! I am a jewelry maker on etsy as well and have worked with sea urchin spines and other odd materials as well. I would love to try to make some things with the Lionfish and donate a part back to the conservation efforts. Please contact me at info at Thanks for your work and efforts!

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  11. Randomn question, but is there anyone for the average person to get Lionfish needles? I love the idea of the Lionfish needle toothpicks and was hoping to get some.

    • Kailuani

      Depending where you are located your best bet is to talk to a fisherman or diver who is catching lionfish. Just tell them you want some spines. You need to run your fingers up the spine to bind the fin sheath to the bone. Then let them dry in the sun for a couple of days. If you want to use them as toothpicks it would be advisable to seal them with a clear sealant such as polyeurethene or lacquer.

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