An avid diver saw how lionfish have devastated populations of Florida’s native tropical fish and resolved to help solve the problem
Aarav Chavda has been diving off the coast of Florida for years. Each time he became increasingly depressed by the ever-growing void, as colourful species of fish and coral reefs continued to disappear.
A significant reason for that disappearance is the lionfish, an invasive species that has boomed in Atlantic waters from Florida to the Caribbean in recent decades, and in numerous other places from Brazil and Mexico to the Mediterranean.
Lionfish have no natural predators outside their native range – in the Indian and Pacific Oceans and the Red Sea – and are all-consuming, devouring an estimated 79% of young marine life within five weeks of entering a coral reef system. “You can see the impacts on the reefs when you dive now – it’s less vibrant, it’s less cacophonous,” Chavda said.
“We know there are solutions for some of the problems – such as coral-friendly sunscreens to help protect the reefs – but nobody’s been able to do anything about the lionfish.”
So Chavda and a team of ecologically aware fellow scuba enthusiasts decided to act by establishing Inversa, which turns lionfish into a new product: fish leather. On Wednesday, World Oceans Day, the team was recognised as one of nine finalists in the Global Ocean Resilience Innovation Challenge (Oric).
Chavda, 27, and his childhood friend from Texas, Roland Salatino, set up the Florida-based company to make the leather. They process the fish hides by tanning them with drying agents and dye them before selling the leather to partner companies to fashion into high-end products including wallets, belts and handbags. Fish skin is thin but because the fibre structure runs crossways, it is stronger than many other types of leather.
Each hide, Chavda says, can save up to 70,000 native reef fish.
The hides are also more sustainable than traditional animal leathers, which generally require grazing on huge amounts of pasture – degrading soils and producing high carbon emissions.
Inversa does not hunt the lionfish itself. Instead, it relies on educating and encouraging largely poor fishermen and women in often remote places to catch them.
“A lot of the geographies, especially the lower-income Caribbean area, have no market at all [for lionfish] – and so this fish is not only destroying the coral reefs, which sustain these fishing cooperatives’ livelihoods, but they also can’t do anything about it,” Chavda said.
“They could hunt lionfish, but that takes time, and it means they’re not hunting other things. They’d be spending their precious time not on lobster, not on grouper – so it’s very unfortunate.”
The Inversa project that impressed the Oric judges seeks to address that problem. The company is proposing to set up well-equipped fishing cooperatives in Quintana Roo, Mexico, by underwriting the fishers’ risk with a “100% catch-to-cash guarantee” for lionfish. This would finance the purchase of equipment, then offer premium incentives and prompt payment for lionfish.
“We’re really sort of empowering the consumer and fashion by doing something for the planet – then we empower dive communities in the fishing cooperatives all throughout the Caribbean to do something for themselves,” Chavda said.