Lionfish Jewelry: A Market Solution to an Invasive Species

8422441141_0d07ecdbe6_zBy Samantha Voncannon

The overwhelming lionfish population in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean has become a top-tier threat to the environment, economy and sustainability efforts in countries like Belize. Native to the Indian and Pacific Ocean, lionfish were established as an invasion species in the Pacific and Caribbean Ocean in 1980, and have since become one of the greatest threats to sustainability of the coral reef and fisheries throughout the Caribbean.

With no known predators, lionfish populations are exploding, due to the species’ ability to quickly reproduce and eat with abandon. They eat a wide variety of other ocean creatures that inhabit the Mesoamerican Coral Reef, the second largest coral reef in the world. Biodiversity in the ocean is quickly declining, and it is partly due to the lionfish.

The tourism industry counts for 25 percent of Belize’s gross domestic product, with another 18,000 Belizeans that are directly dependent on fisheries for their livelihood.  The threat to the sustainability of the coral reef is critical to the economic stability of two-thirds of the Belizean population, in addition to the numerous other ecosystem services the coral reef provides.

Belize is also facing several social issues: The unemployment rate is 12.2 percent, and the poverty rate is 41.3 percent of the population. The educational level of the citizens is on average to the eighth grade level, which makes the labor force dependent on manual labor jobs, such as construction or agriculture.  Traditionally the income of a family relies on male contribution to a household, with only 33 percent of the labor force being female.

A creative solution to multi-pronged problem

Several NGOs and nonprofits, such as Toledo Institute for Development and Environment, are now taking a market-based approach to battle the poverty in Belize, and also help with the coral reef conservation efforts. In addition to encouraging people to target the lionfish for food, a new social movement is teaching women how to use the tails of the lionfish to create jewelry.

The tail of the lionfish is considered waste among fishermen, as it is not edible.  By using the tails of the lionfish for jewelry, each lionfish caught then gains 40 percent more monetary value. The upfront investment to produce jewelry requires a small amount of varnish to treat the lionfish tail and supplies for making the jewelry which gives the women a huge profit margin on each piece sold. Considering the marine life attracts so many tourists that visit Belize, the lionfish jewelry has a large market made up of people willing to pay a premium price.

Training for making the jewelry is also an easy process for the Belizean women. Training requires no formal education, can be done in a one-day workshop, and can also occur with a large group at one time.  The lack of expensive equipment for making this jewelry is also fortunate;  typically all that is needed is scissors and wire bending tools which makes training easily accessible.

This solution to combat the growing population of lionfish is a great example of a practical sustainable approach to a problem that touches many issues. By using the momentum of the targeted fishing of lionfish to conserve the coral reef, the social initiative to train women to make lionfish jewelry provides an income for families, reduces waste, feeds off an already successful initiative to expand the fishery market and increases a labor force — all while empowering Belizean women.

Image credit: Flickr/tambako

Samantha Voncannon will graduate in May 2015 with her Master’s Degree in Sustainability at Wake Forest University.

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