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.)

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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.

two hands stretch a triangle of bright blue, scaly leather. A piece of black leather is in the background

A piece of Inversa's lionfish leather. Image courtesy of Inversa Leathers

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.

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