Since its accidental introduction to the Atlantic in the 1980s, the Indo-Pacific lionfish Pterois volitans has become one of the greatest threats to the resilience of Caribbean reef systems. With extremely rapid reproduction and few natural predators outside its native range, lionfish populations have exploded across the Caribbean and beyond, devastating fish and invertebrate communities on coral reefs throughout the region.
A voracious predator of juvenile fish and invertebrates, lionfish suppress populations of many ecologically important species. With Caribbean ecosystems already weakened by the effects of overfishing and climate change, the lionfish invasion is driving further dramatic reductions in fish recruitment rates.
Lionfish are a particular menace for Belize, a small country where fishing and marine tourism support the livelihoods of over 15,000 people and contribute 25% to GDP. Whilst eradicating lionfish is not possible, recent research has shown that suppressing populations on coral reefs allows native marine species to recover. To do so requires significant and consistent removal of lionfish at scale, with the engagement of all reef stakeholders.
Belize’s fishing industry is dominated by conch and lobster, which together account for half of the value of all fisheries landings. However, both fisheries are overexploited and there is a critical need for fisheries diversification and economic alternatives to reduce dependency on them.
Lionfish is an increasingly popular food fish throughout much of the Caribbean, with fishers and seafood markets shifting attention to this species as a new fishery.
Targeted lionfish fishing is now developing in Belize, and offers both ecological and economic benefits, providing a new source of income for fishing communities while also helping to suppress populations of this invader.
Specific benefits include:
Since 2011, Blue Ventures has pioneered efforts to commercialise Belize’s nascent lionfishery by working with fishers, consumers, restaurants, fishing cooperatives and seafood distributors.
Due to their venomous spines, lionfish safe-handling demonstrations for fishers have been held regularly in Sarteneja, the largest fishing village in Belize, providing practical training in adapting fishing techniques to target lionfish. To overcome concerns of envenomation, simple first aid is taught for treating lionfish stings. Since 2013, we have expanded this programme to fishing communities across Belize.
Taster and information events have raised the profile of lionfish throughout Belize as an edible, tasty fish; it is now becoming a regular sight on restaurant menus, and is increasingly used for home cooking.
“I came to know of lionfish thanks to Blue Ventures… I learned how to clean lionfish, and how harmful it is for our environment and fisheries. Most people didn’t even know what this fish was, so we invited them to try it and they find it delicious!” – Pablito Alas, Estrellas del Mar Restaurant, Sarteneja Village
Supporting restaurants seeking to incorporate lionfish into their menus is critical to building the domestic market for the species in Belize. To build this market and assist restaurants eager to help address the invasion, Blue Ventures is linking restaurants to suppliers and providing marketing assistance through menu inserts and posters. In 2011, no restaurants in Belize served lionfish regularly. Today, 16 restaurants, at least one in each of Belize’s six districts, serves lionfish as part of their main menu or regularly as a special.
In 2013, Blue Ventures worked with the Placencia Producers’ Cooperative Society Limited (Belize) and Traditional Fisheries (USA) to establish Belize’s first commercial lionfish handling facility for supply to local and export markets.
With the demand for lionfish fillets in the USA currently outweighing supply by 400%, Blue Ventures is working with Belize’s largest fishing cooperative, the Northern Fishermen Cooperative Society Limited, to develop avenues for bulk export of frozen lionfish to the USA.
To add value to lionfish landings, Blue Ventures is also exploring opportunities for the development of value-added product lines, including use of lionfish spines and fins for jewellery manufacture, already active at a small-scale in Belize.
By using previously discarded parts, such activities can add up to 40% to the value of catches. Blue Ventures is providing training to women in coastal communities to increase the number of jewellers using lionfish in their work, and establishing a lionfish processing plant in Sarteneja.
We run lionfish expeditions to involve volunteers in our work and contribute to research aiming to monitor the progression of the invasion in Bacalar Chico Marine Reserve, as well as to inform regional invasive lionfish research priorities.
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