By: Jen Chapman (2014 Fellow)
In this interview, Jen describes what sparked her passion for the marine environment and how she works to create an active and diverse market for lionfish with Blue Ventures in Belize. This interview is part of a Fisheries Series this fall, featuring webinars as well as articles like on The Kinship Lens.
Q: Tell us a bit about yourself.
I consider myself extremely lucky to have been raised in Singapore and South Africa, and by parents who love travelling and the outdoors. My upbringing is definitely the source of my passion for the marine environment. I remember snorkelling on Malaysian coral reefs as a child, finding a hawksbill turtle that had died entangled in a discarded fishing net, seeing shark fins drying on lines in villages, and my heart breaking when I saw the fish that I loved to see on the reef, in live seafood restaurants’ aquaria.
As I became more interested in coral reefs and fisheries, I became appalled by the methods that are used to harvest these precious resources and the associated inequality in distribution of wealth. When I finished my biology degree, I returned to South East Asia to complete a coral reef conservation internship with Endangered Species International in the Philippines and then worked as a biologist and project manager for Ecofieldtrips.
Whilst exploring the fantastic biodiversity of the Coral Triangle, I realised that my passion lay in practical conservation work, and I had a strong desire to try living somewhere I had never been before. I was thrilled to start working for Blue Ventures in Belize in 2011 and have absolutely fallen in love with this beautiful country. Sometimes, I have to pinch myself when I bump into a manatee on a water quality monitoring trip, or whilst gearing up for an early dive at our field site, Bacalar Chico; a time often coupled with an unbeatable sunrise! I am based at our office in Belize’s largest fishing village, Sarteneja, and from the moment I got off the bus, I felt at home. That feeling has never left.
Q: The major hurdle in encouraging fishermen to catch and restaurants to source lionfish, is their venomous spines. How does Blue Ventures handle educating communities about this?
Since mid-2011, we have held regular lionfish safe handling demonstrations with fishers and often couple these with tasters and information booths for the general public. These events invariably start with a presentation reviewing the lionfish invasion, so that everyone understands the negative impacts this invasive fish has on Caribbean reefs, after which we pull out the first of many dead, whole lionfish. Our objective is to show that getting a lionfish market-ready is not so tricky, as long as you know the location of the venomous spines.
Most people are aware of the large dorsal spines, but the smaller spines located on the pelvic and anal fins are less obvious and are usually the source of a sting. We also place a heavy emphasis on the effective use of hot water as first aid, as well as the difference between poisonous (don’t eat) and venomous (don’t touch).
After the first demonstration, fishers in the audience are invited to try cleaning and filleting lionfish, and offered tasters of lionfish ceviche and empanadas. During our first events, people were very hesitant to try and some outright refused; now, fishers bring lionfish home to feed to their families.
Q: Lionfish has been featured on menus in Sarteneja, Belize for a few years now. Are you seeing interest from consumers outside that community? How is Blue Ventures working to increase demand?
Yes, definitely. We work to increase demand through media appearances, submitting articles to national newspapers, as well as holding regular taster events. We are aiming at expanding our social marketing campaign to include roadside banners, t-shirt distribution, and radio adverts. We also partner with the Southern Environmental Association to conduct an annual lionfish culling derby, an event that always gets people talking about lionfish.
I suppose, in reality it’s quite simple – at every opportunity, we are there talking about lionfish, giving out tasters, playing lionfish themed games, and wearing lionfish t-shirts! To help restaurants in selling this relatively new food item, we provide marketing assistance in the form of posters, table tents, and menu inserts encouraging the consumer to try this delicious and environmentally sound seafood choice.
Q: What are the major advances you’ve seen in the last year or so in your project?
In mid-2013, we partnered with a US-based seafood distributor, Traditional Fisheries, and Placencia’s fishing cooperative to facilitate the first international export of lionfish from Belize. All went smoothly, however a subsequent increase in shipping costs means that we have to find an alternative route to meet the international demand. Nevertheless, the first export did attract a great deal of media attention, and fishers began to deliver lionfish to the Placencia Cooperative for distribution nationally.
In 2014, seeing an increase in demand, we partnered with the Sarteneja Fishermen Association to train another 32 fishers on lionfish safe-handling and to develop fisher-restaurant partnerships. Over the last month in particular, we have seen a huge increase in the number of fishers targeting lionfish, which they are selling to restaurants around Belize.
As of September 2014, lionfish can be found for sale in all six districts in Belize, and more restaurants are reaching out to us to develop partnerships with fishers. That’s not to say there isn’t still work to be done; we want to see lionfish in all restaurants in Belize, and eaten in homes across the country! We’re in the process of collecting data from restaurants to get an estimate of current turnover – a figure I’m excited to see. Another interesting development has been lionfish jewellery production, which has boomed in the last six months.
Q: Are you willing to share your favorite lionfish recipe?
I can never get enough lionfish ceviche – and it’s so easy to make! Raw, cubed lionfish fillet is marinated in a delicious concoction of tomato, onion, cilantro and lime – the lime cooks the fish, so when you see it has turned white, you know it’s ready.
Interested in learning more about Blue Ventures’ work with lionfish? Check out the resources below.
- Stimulating a new market for lionfish, Blue Ventures
- VIDEO: From reef to plate – Belize combats the lionfish, Deutsche Welle (DW)
- Belize Fights Back Against an Uninvited Guest, National Geographic
Jen Chapman is the Country Coordinator for Blue Ventures in Belize, where she has led the development of research and conservation programmes since 2011. A key part of this has been leading the promotion of market-based strategies to address invasive lionfish populations, including the successful development of international export and domestic markets. Prior to working in Belize, Jen was based in Singapore, where she was responsible for developing and leading educational fieldtrips throughout South East Asia, specialising in marine biology, conservation and environmental education. She received a Bachelor of Science with honours in Biology from the University of Southampton in the UK, where she subsequently worked as a research assistant investigating the environmental sustainability of bioenergy crops. Jen believes passionately that innovative, sustainable, market-led approaches are required to solve problems of depletion of marine resources – the recovery of which are inextricably linked to human health, wealth and happiness.