I’ve posted previously about the emergence of lionfish jewelry as one of several market-based approaches to controlling the invasion of this non-native species which poses an unprecedented threat to marine ecosystems in the Western Atlantic.
Last month, for the third year in a row, I spent two weeks in Belize where I had a chance to get an update on how the market is developing. I started my visit in Placencia, which is home to Kaj Assales, the most successful of the lionfish jewelry artists in the country, with her own jewelry line which she sells through her boutique as well as online. It was my first chance to visit her shop and to see some of her new designs.
Next I spent a week in the Sapodilla Cayes with ReefCI, the NPO that I first collaborated with to help jump-start the lionfish jewelry market in the country. This gave me a chance to practice my lionfish spearing skills, as the ReefCI team and visiting volunteers continue to remove several hundred lionfish per week dissecting a sample of 30-40 of these for stomach content. Data on size, sex, and stomach content is provided to the Belize Fisheries Department and has been a valuable input to its national lionfish control strategy. Coincidently, ReefCI’s lionfish control program was profiled in the August issue of United Airlines magazine; not only a nice recognition of the group’s efforts, but also a great boost for raising awareness about the lionfish invasion.
My stay with ReefCI also gave me the opportunity to catch up on some new techniques for drying and preservation of fins and spines. Whereas drying had previously been done using a wooden board, the team there is now using a frame with wire screen. The materials dry much more quickly using this technique and are therefore less likely to lose their color. I harvested and dried several dozen fins and tails which I was able to put to good use later in my visit.
During my week with ReefCI I was also fortunate enough to be able to cross one item off my diving bucket list; swimming with a whale shark! It was absolutely amazing to see this magnificent animal swim by me so closely that its tail brushed my arm.
Following my week with ReefCI, I spent a few days at Caye Caulker from where I was able to dive Belize’s famous Blue Hole and other sites at the Lighthouse Reef Atoll. I was pleased to see only a few lionfish at these sites, although the behavior of nurse sharks in the area suggested that they are being fed speared lionfish, a practice that has been discouraged elsewhere. I happened to have some samples and pictures of lionfish jewelry with me, as well as the fins I had harvested, so I took the opportunity to check out the various shops and curio stands on the island to see what type of jewelry items they were selling and at what price, and to gauge interest in lionfish jewelry. I felt like an itinerant peddler (or preacher) as I went from stand to stand to talk up lionfish jewelry. I did find several jewelry makers (interestingly all of them were male) who were interested, and I provided them with some pictures and a few fins, along with brief instruction. When I stopped by the stands the next day, one of the artists (Calvin) had already enlisted a fellow jeweler and had spoken to a local fisher about getting additional fins! I’ve asked my partners in Belize to check in on him the next time they visit Caye Caulker.
Following a short visit to the fishing village of Sarteneja, where I had helped to deliver a lionfish jewelry workshop last year, I traveled to Monkey Bay, near Belize’s capital city of Belmopan, to join the delivery of a three-day lionfish jewelry workshop for women from Belizean coastal communities. I once again collaborated with Blue Ventures, which had secured funding for the workshop from the World Wildlife Fund (click here for a great interview with Jen Chapman, Blue Ventures’ dynamic country program manager, where she lays out the objectives of the lionfish jewelry initiative). We were fortunate to have Palovi Beazar, one of Belize’s lionfish jewelry pioneers, as one of trainers for the workshop. It is amazing to see how much her designs and technique for the jewelry has advanced since the first few pieces she crafted two years ago using spines that I had preserved. She showed me an exquisite set of “angel wing” earrings that she had made using the inside cheeks of a lionfish (see photo above). What creativity! Palovi was joined by Petrona Hun, another jeweler from Punta Gorda, profiled here. As a Knowledge Management professional, it was great to see the willingness of these two ladies to share their skills, tips and techniques.
The workshop participants were provided with a set of jewelry-making tools as well as a starter kit of beads, jewelry hooks and wire, and dried fins and tails. It was inspiring to see their confidence grow over the three days. Only a few of them had any prior jewelry-making experience, but by the end of the first day, each of them had crafted three pairs of earrings, following models provided by Paolvi. Later in the week, she showed them how to use local materials, such as fishing wire, cut-outs from tin cans, bottle caps, etc. in lieu of commercial materials. At the end of the workshop, each of them had produced at least a half a dozen pieces, many of unique design.
Unlike previous workshops that had focused mainly on jewelry making, the workshop last month also included a discussion about the threat posed by the lionfish invasion and the reasons why it is important to remove them. It also covered harvesting, drying and preservation of fins (using several lionfish I had speared in the Sapodilla Cayes and had managed to keep fresh in the interim). Some of the ladies had never actually handled a lionfish (they had only worked with dried fins provided by others) and were generally not aware of the threat they pose to the incomes and livelihoods of their communities. Perhaps most importantly, we also covered small business skills including basic cost accounting, marketing, and branding. The session on cost accounting was particularly interesting, as it required us to provide some remedial math training to some of the ladies in order for them to calculate unit costs for materials that were purchased in bulk. This session also included a lively discussion on the rate they should use to value their own labor.
It was gratifying to see how the ladies came together as a group over the course of the workshop. As noted above, the fourteen participants came from coastal communities all over Belize and had been selected from among more than forty applicants. Only a few of them had met before the workshop, but they soon bonded, collaborating and supporting each other,despite differences in language and cultural backgrounds. By the end of the week, they had agreed to form a cooperative, tentatively named Belize Women Lionfish Jewellers United, and to jointly market under the brand of “authentic handmade lionfish jewelry from Belize”, which they hope to have the Belize Tourism Board include in its “Uniquely Belize” marketing campaigns. Each lady contributed one piece of jewelry to be sold to help capitalize a common fund for the cooperative.
But the participants from Belize were not the only inspiring group of women at the workshop. We were also joined by four graduate students from Colorado State University who had organized a crowd sourcing campaign that funded four participants, supplementing the ten funded by WWF. Check out this blog with their impressions and photos from the workshop.
Following my trip last month, I’m even more convinced that development of lionfish jewelry markets can play an important role in helping to fight the lionfish invasion. I was interested to learn that some fishers are now regularly selling fins and tails to women who either produce jewelry themselves, or supply the materials to others. Indeed, the original motivation of the initiative was to create additional incentives for fishers to harvest lionfish as compared to other species where the returns are higher. In the case of Belize, we are finding that the sale of fins and tails is increasing the landed value by up to 40 percent. On top of this, the jewelry markets create new livelihood opportunities for women and also help to raise awareness about the invasion.
In order to better document these benefits and understand how to stimulate development of the market, I am collaborating with Blue Ventures and with lionfish jewelry promoters in the Bahamas and the Grenadines to undertake a study of the socioeconomic benefits of lionfish jewelry production. We plan to interview women in all three countries who are producing lionfish jewelry and/or have received training in the production. We will be presenting the findings at a workshop on lionfish management and control during this year’s Gulf and Caribbean Fisheries Institute Conference in Panama, where I hope to explore establishment of a regional lionfish jewelry brand and marketing initiative. In the meantime, I’m finding increasing interest in other countries impacted by the lionfish invasion. I’ve noted that an artist from Bermuda is producing some unique lionfish jewelry designs which she is selling online. I’m also aware of new lionfish jewelry initiatives in Grenada and Mexico and have been in touch with a group in Colombia that is interested in organizing a jewelry workshop. Here in the United States, I had a chance to present the lionfish jewelry idea to representatives from NOAA and from several aquariums when I participated in a lionfish culling and research expedition in one of the NOAA managed national marine sanctuaries. They are all interested in the possibility of selling through aquarium gift shops, a channel which I have mentioned in previous posts.
Watch this space for further updates.