CSU students back efforts in Belize to find a new use for an invasive species

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Belize is known for its beaches, scuba diving and sport fishing. But since 2014, the Central American country has also served as a home base for graduate students working on conservation and development through the Warner College of Natural Resources.

Last summer, a group of CSU students in Belize launched a crowdfunding campaign to send local women to a workshop to learn how to create jewelry from the invasive lionfish. The workshop — sponsored by Blue Ventures — is one of several efforts aimed at reducing the country’s population of the invasive fish. Blue Ventures is a social enterprise, an organization that uses commercial strategies to raise awareness for conservation efforts.

Lionfish, native to the Indo-Pacific, have spread rapidly across the western Atlantic and Caribbean and now can be found from Rhode Island to Brazil. The fish, named one of the world’s major conservation threats, crowd out native fish and harm coral reef ecosystems. Their prickly spines also deliver a venomous sting to people.

Groups like NOAA are tracking the lionfish and encouraging people to report lionfish sighting to help with research.

Workshop empowers women

The goal of the jewelry-making workshop was to increase demand for the fish to encourage higher catches of lionfish by fishers, while also providing women with additional income.

CSU graduate students heard about the Blue Ventures-led jewelry workshop while on a field trip and decided to help more local women attend. They said they hoped to empower the women to address the issues around the invasive fish.

In a matter of two days, even using free time while their van was broken down on the side of the road, the students created a crowdfunding website and promotional video. They raised over $2,000 in 27 days to provide four women with the opportunity to attend the workshop.

“The students recognized where they could make a difference and they committed to the task, even though there were so many obstacles to overcome since the work had to be done in a very tight timeframe while traveling in Belize,” said Jennifer Solomon, a CSU professor and student advisor. “It is inspiring to see our students collaborate to have a positive impact in the places where we work.  There is no doubt that these are our future conservation leaders – committed, inventive and collaborative.”

Creating beautiful jewelry

Participants who took part in the workshop learned how to handle, prepare and treat the lionfish fins to be turned into jewelry. They also learned about marketing strategies and finances and will continue to receive regular support from Blue Ventures as they launch and grow their businesses. CSU students attended the workshop to help with translation, take photos, and to learn the process to create a step-by-step worksheet for participants.

“It was inspiring to see how much the participants bonded over creating beautiful jewelry from this invasive fish threatening the Belize Barrier Reef,” said Megan Jones, one of the students attending the workshop.

“Some of the women came from fishing families, and were proud to be able to help protect their communities’ traditional livelihoods. We felt lucky to be able to support that process in a small way, and the women were very grateful to all the people who helped them by donating to the crowdfunding campaign,” she added.

Two of the CSU students will continue working with Blue Ventures to analyze the feasibility of a local consumer market for lionfish. The bigger the movement of people working to control the invasion, the more likely it will succeed.

CSU’s efforts in Belize — and the student-led crowdfunding campaign — was recently featured on CBS4 Denver. CBS Sunday Morning also featured the lionfish and the ecological threat from this species.

Graduate students in Belize are enrolled in the Conservation Leadership Through Learning Program, an award-winning master’s degree program offered through the Department of Human Dimensions in the Warner College of Natural Resources at CSU. The program prepares leaders to address complex conservation issues across the globe through coursework at CSU’s main campus and applied project-based experiences abroad. Students from the program are currently completing projects in Belize, Mexico, Peru, New Zealand, and Kenya.