It seems like an ordinary leather wallet, neatly stitched, with a slight sheen. “It looks like leather, smells like leather,” says Aarav Chavda, CEO and co-founder of Inversa Leathers. Twist or fold it, and you might notice it’s “wickedly” strong, thanks to a unique fiber structure. Look closer, and you might see the delicate lattice of ridgelines that once held scales in place. But it’s not made from lizard skin. And it’s certainly not cow hide. It’s lionfish.
“We create leather from this horrible invasive species,” Chavda says. Inversa’s work is one attempt to solve an ecological crisis, albeit in an unexpected way. Or, as Chavda puts it, “Wait what, how does a handbag save the coral reefs?”
Lionfish look unlike anything else on the reef, with striking red-brown zebra stripes and huge venomous spines that fan out around them. Native to the Indo-Pacific region and the Red Sea, they’ve long been popular in home aquariums. But in the 1980s, a few individuals either escaped or were released off the coast of Florida.
Away from the creatures that normally control their populations, these invasive lionfish have become voracious top predators: One study found that lionfish can kill 79% of juvenile fish on a reef in just five weeks. And since many of those fish eat algae off corals, their disappearance can set off a domino effect that kills the reefs, as well. Over the past few decades, the swiftly reproducing lionfish have spread up and down the Atlantic coast and throughout the Caribbean with shocking speed. Now, having been introduced via the Suez Canal, they’re even taking over the Mediterranean.
Watch: Ocean Invaders
Fishing may seem like an obvious solution, but traps and lines don’t fool lionfish. The best way to remove them from an area is by spearfishing. So to stop this underwater disaster, coastal communities are trying to give divers a reason to go out and catch them. Some host lionfish derbies with cash prizes. Local restaurants have begun preparing lionfish meat in dishes like ceviche and fish tacos. Artisans make earrings out of the fish’s fearsome spines. And in 2020, Chavda and fellow scuba diver COO Roland Salatino founded Inversa. Now, they pay solo hunters and fishing collectives in a dozen countries around the Caribbean and Mediterranean to harvest the fish for their skin.
After starting with just a few divers, Inversa now works with a cast of thousands, promising reliable and prompt payment for their catch and teaching them how to deal with the risk of sting, which is painful but not lethal. Sometimes that means the company sponsors its own lionfish derbies; other times it means working with local governments to get exceptions to preservation laws. (“There’s a very good reason why people usually aren’t allowed to hunt on coral reefs,” Chavda says.)
Considering how quickly invading lionfish can take over a new reef, haphazard, broad-focused hunting tends not to make a difference, Salatino says, comparing it to “weeding every fortieth weed.” Instead, Inversa encourages the communities it works with to focus on what it calls “management zones,” which divers can return to and comb over again and again.
“There’s a replenish rate,” Chavda adds. “You remove them on Monday, and then you have to come back in two or three months.”
A single hunter might snare 15 fish on a slow day or 70 if they find an especially hot lionfish spot. Inversa collects the take every week from docks in Nassau and South Florida. At a processing center in Tampa, a staffer skins the fish by hand, carefully removing the venomous spines. The meat goes to restaurants, and the skin is shipped to Inversa’s tanning facilities in Ohio. Everything else gets ground up for fish oil or bait.
In Ohio, the lionfish skins undergo an intricate, 52-step tanning process. They’re bathed and rebathed in various solutions, with names like “deliming” and “pickling,” which manipulate their pH level. This process allows tanners to target the fibers of the fish skin, opening up the network of collagen that keeps the skin together, helping a chemical “tanning agent” bind to that network, and then locking it together again. The result is that the “overall structure of the skin is reinforced,” Salatino explains. “The oils and fats and all those bits get taken out. You’re left with the strong, reinforced leather.” The end result: handbags, wallets, belts, and sneakers with that distinctive scaly pattern, sold by exotic leather companies that otherwise might focus on shark, bison, or stingray.
From the start, Inversa leathers have been in high demand. “We’ve never not had a backlog,” Chavda says. They purchased hundreds of fish per week this past year from individual hunters and fishing collectives, the biggest two-day haul topping 7,000 fish. And they recently purchased new tanning drums that can handle seven times their previous maximum material.
Those drums won’t just hold lionfish. Inversa recently began expanding into other invasive species, including the pythons that have a literal chokehold on Florida’s Everglades. “They kill 99% of small mammalian life,” Chavda says. “There used to be otters around, squirrels, bunnies, songbirds, alligators.” The irony, he points out, is that python skin leather is actually in demand in parts of the world where the snakes are native and close to endangered. He and Salatino keep a running list of some 4,000 invasive species that Inversa might someday turn into products. Much like the lionfish, “We’d like to stop using the python where they’re becoming more and more endangered, instead using them from the areas where they’re actually decimating our life,” Salatino says. One handbag at a time.