I’ve written in previous posts about the initiative to develop a market for lionfish jewelry as one of a number of commercially sustainable approaches to fighting this invasive species that is threatening marine ecosystems throughout the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Southern Atlantic seaboard of the United States. In my last post, I mentioned that the idea is beginning to take off in Belize. I was able to observe this first-hand last month, spending two and a half weeks in the country. During my stay I had the opportunity to meet local artists who are making lionfish jewelry and to participate in several workshops to share techniques and designs.
I began my visit in Punta Gorda in Southern Belize. Thanks in large measure to support from ReefCI (the NGO I began working with last summer), Punta Gorda has become something of a hub for lionfish jewelry production, with about half a dozen artists producing earrings, necklaces, bracelets, rings and other items which are being sold through various tourist outlets in the area. I went to a gala while I was there and was amazed to see how many of the women attending were wearing lionfish jewelry! The most active of the Punta Gorda jewelery makers has been Palovi Baezar, who I wrote about in my last post. It was impressive to see how much her designs have advanced since the first few pieces she crafted last summer. I also had the pleasure of meeting Khadjija (Kaj) Assales, who came down to Punta Gorda to join a brainstorming meeting on how to further develop the market. It was very helpful to hear Kaj’s persepctive, as she represents the biggest “success story” so far in the lionfish jewelry market, with her own line of jewelry which she sells both through her boutique in the tourist town of Placencia and through an online store. Shortly after our meeting, she traveled to Jamaica for a Caribbean design expo where here lionfish jewelry was featured.
While in Punta Gorda I partnered with ReefCI to deliver a knowledge sharing workshop attended by a number of the artists who are already making lionfish jewelry and others who are interested in starting to do so. It was a lot of fun, and a great opportunity to share experiences and techniques. I was interested to learn that most of the jewelers prefer to work with lionfish fins, rather than spines, as the fins are less likely to break and don’t require special treatment since they don’t contain any venom. It was also cool to see how the artists are incorporating other local materials such as feathers, cocoa beans, and sea glass into their lionfish jewelry creations. I showed the ladies what I have learned about dyeing lionfish spines and tails, and Palovi shared her designs. I also distributed a supply of jewelry beads and earring hooks generously donated by Melinda Carlson (aka Gypsy Piper Girl), one of the Etsy jewelers who I have been supplying with lionfish spines and tails.
Following my stay in Punta Gorda, I spent a week at ReefCI’s project site in the Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve where I was able to observe and try out some of the new techniques the team there has come up with for drying and preserving lionfish tails and fins. They have found that if the tails and fins are removed while still fresh (generally at the time that the fish are filleted or dissected), they can be shaped in various ways and will then hold the shape when left to dry. I was amazed to learn that the pectoral fins of each individual fish have a unique pattern of colors and spots, with a range of hues. Many look like butterfly wings; indeed the process of spreading and shaping the fins to dry reminded me of the technique I learned for mounting butterflies when I was a kid! I was particularly excited to learn that the fins retain their color if dried in the shade (one of the problems with the sun drying process we had used previously was that it tended to bleach out the color). It was great to have access to an ample supply of freshly speared lionfish, which gave me a lot of opportunity to experiment. During the course of the week I personally removed and dried around 50 tails and fins, trying out a number of shapes.
The week with ReefCI also gave me a chance to brush up on my lionfish spearing skills. My take for the week, 15; a measly few compared to the 65 speared in one hour (while free diving no less!) by ReefCI’s intrepid boat captain, Snake. I’m not sure whether this qualifies for a record under the World Lionfish Hunters Association rules, but impressive none-the-less; also an unfortunate indication of the magnitude of the lionfish infestation in that part of Belize.
Participating in the culling and dissections also gave me a chance to observe first-hand some of the trends in lionfish behavior and prey composition that I’d read about in some of the recent scientific literature about the invasion. Whereas dissections I’d done last summer revealed a prey composition consisting mainly of juvenile fish, the stomachs of lionfish I dissected on this trip were filled primarily with shrimp. I spoke to a marine biologist from the Belize Fisheries Department about this and he confirmed similar observations throughout the area; an unfortunate sign that the lionfish have been so voracious in gobbling up fish recruits that they now need to turn to a different food source. The team at ReefCI also confirmed a change in lionfish behavior that has been reported elsewhere in the Caribbean; the lionfish on reefs where culling is done regularly are becoming wary, hiding out during the day and feeding only in the early morning and evening. It was indeed strange to see lionfish, which are usually oblivious of divers, swimming away or scooting into holes in the coral when approached. Only a few days after I left, a new paper was released by a group of preeminent lionfish researchers in which they recommend modifications in culling approaches to account for these changes in behavior.
In my next post, I’ll talk about the second part of my trip, including an initiative to jump-start lionfish jewelry production in another part of Belize.