Lionfish Invasion in Sanibel

By SC Reporter Teresa Vazquez


Reefs once overflowing with life have lost their luster since the start of the Lionfish invasion. Two divers witnessing the changing reefs sought out a solution to help restore them.

“It’s all changed. All those small, critical fish, crustaceans, and even the babies of large fish, like grouper, have been devoured, and all you see is lionfish everywhere,” Roland Salatino said. “Even the sounds of the reef are gone. They’re clearly dying and that’s so tragic.”

When Roland Salatino and Aarav Chavda first started diving Florida’s reefs were vibrant, lively, and diverse ecosystems—full of life and sound. As the lionfish invasion worsened, life under the sea grew somber.

Seeing the effects, the pair decided it was time for them to do their part in the fight against lionfish eradication.

“We’re done waiting for governments and nonprofits,” Roland Salatino said. “They’re great and they do a lot of great work, but we’re done waiting and we think it’s time for us to come in and do our part as well here.”

They established their own fight against the invasive species through Salatino Seafood and Leo X Leather. The former focuses on selling fillets, hoping to popularize the delicacy while the latter is working on developing lionfish leather products.

“We chose this approach [because] we’re trying to be as sustainable as possible with this fish,” Salatino said. “The more that we can incentivize consumers who want to use this fish for whatever it is, whether it’s for food, jewelry, or leather that creates more customer demand in the market.”

Through their companies, they are actively removing fish from the sea which Madalyn Mussey, Education & Outreach Program Manager at the Reef Environment Education Foundation (REEF) explains is the most effective way to fight the invasion.

“We’ve learned that people going out and spearing lionfish on a regular basis, is the most effective way to control this population,” Mussey said. “It’s like weeding a garden, you’re always going to have weeds, but if you go out and do it often enough, they won’t be as much of a pain.”

In her lecture “Citizen Science & Invasive Lionfish removal” presented at CROW’s Speaker Series on March 16, Mussey shared the effects of the invasion and how it began.

Lionfish, originally from the Indo-Pacific Ocean region, began invading the Western Atlantic, Caribbean, and the Gulf of Mexico in 1989. First seen in Dania Beach, Fla. the fish is suspected to have made its way there due to the aquarium trade business.

Once lionfish owners realized the fish were hard to maintain, due to their eating habits, they released them into the ocean unknowing of the consequences. Due to the lack of predators and biodiversity in the invaded region they have succeeded to spread in great numbers, said Mussey.

The original invasion which could be traced back to eight lionfish has now reached an unknown number. These fish and their particular feeding habits are affecting the ecosystem, said Mussey.

Mussey said a study done by Dr. Stephanie Greenwich found that fish populations decreased by up to 65% in most areas lionfish were heavily present, and 95% in areas basically overrun by them.

Salatino and Chavda are working to stunt those negative effects. They wish to increase the demand of the fish, resulting in the removal of more fish.

Salatino Seafood aims to do so by debunking the misconception that lionfish are dangerous to eat due to the poison in their spines.

“The poison denatures very quickly after the lionfish is killed, and especially with heat,” Salatino said. “There is never any danger in eating lionfish. We’ve eaten the fillets raw, and we’ve even eaten the spines themselves after lightly frying the whole fish.”

They also wish to bring awareness of the invasion to those outside of Florida while highlighting the fish as a delicacy, Salatino said. By creating a demand, there is a need for supply which results in the removal of more fish.

Since their establishment, the company has held tastings everywhere from Key Largo to Sanibel/Captiva, and even as far north as Atlanta, Salatino explained. Through these tastings they are able to showcase the “buttery, flakey whitefish with a subtle, but beautiful flavor” to chefs and anyone curious to try.

The fish which can be served in various ways—pan seared, sauteed, fried, etc. — has recently made its way into the Captiva Island Yacht Club and The Sanctuary on Sanibel.

Beyond a fillet, Salatino and Chavda are using the lionfish to create leather. Thus, anyone who may not be fond of the taste of fish can still aid in the mission to eradicate the lionfish.

“If you’re taking fillets to restaurant goers and diners, you’re speaking to one group of people,” Chavda said. “But if you can take the leather, to leather enthusiasts and exotic wholesalers, you name it, there’s a whole other set of people who get informed and learn about the lionfish.”

The leather which is currently still in research and development is more sustainable and stronger than cow leather. Developing this leather has the benefit of not using cows resulting in less methane and the use of less resources, Salatino said.

“It’s the only leather that it not only not bad for the environment, but it’s actually actively good,” Salatino said.

The environmentally focused startup is tapping into a new way to use this invasive fish. Together, the two companies are using the entire fish as their solution to the problem.

But anyone can help, and Salatino encourages people to contribute to the movement by ordering lionfish when available, slowly transitioning away from cow leather, and if they dive, go get them.

Comments (2)

  1. Thomas Zablocki

    There may be a market for the leather in the cowboy boot industry. Tecovas and others make boots from exotic leathers.

  2. This was a very informative article and hope that that time I am in Sanibel/Capitive I can try it out.

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