Fishing Livelihoods & Lionfish Markets in Utila Cays

Brondo receives National Geographic grant, expands opportunities to women

This project adds to Dr. Keri Brondo's broader research on conservation and local livelihoods in marine protected areas off the north coast of Honduras by funding a pilot project to build an alternative revenue stream for islanders suffering from the economic impact of COVID-19. The economy of Utila, Honduras is based almost entirely on dive tourism and fishing, both shattered by COVID-19 and the March 15, 2020 closure of the island to all visitors. While devastating to the local economy, the lockdown created an opportunity to take stock and reflect on the future of conservation and sustainable development. The integration of conservation and community development has met mixed success over the years, as protected area management and conservation policy directly impact the fishing-dependent households of Utila Cays. Residents have long relied on the marine resources targeted by conservation policy, and many are skeptical about the degree to which conservation initiatives can positively impact their livelihood.

Fishing livelihoods have been under threat for Cayans for some time now, accelerated in recent years as more mainland Hondurans move to Utila and increase pressure on the fisheries or travel to the marine park via gas-powered boats for day fishing. The impact of the invasive lionfish (Pterois volitans) has magnified the threat to local fisheries. Native to the Indo-Pacific, lionfish proliferate at an extremely rapid rate and consume native fish species. With reproductive maturity under one year and high fecundity, they have spread rapidly throughout the region and are responsible for the reduction of important native fish and crustacean species. This project pilots an alternative revenue stream for out-of-work Cayan women by training, certifying, and equipping them to safely hunt and dissect invasive lionfish and bring them to market as food sources and artisanal products. There are only three lionfish hunters in the Cays, all men; this project expands opportunities to women, who have been historically underrepresented in the employment history of Utila Cays. The project will also equip women to work as dive masters, an occupation dominated by foreigners on Utila Island.

Conservation rests on community buy-in, and within the fishing-reliant community of Utila Cays, there must be alternative revenue streams attached to conservation goals. This pilot project aims to meet a conservation goal to cull invasive lionfish, while responding to local desires for alternative work in the face of declining fisheries, and build local capacity such that once dive tourism returns to the Bay Islands, Cayan women are poised for employment in the industry. Specifically, the project will train and equip a team of economically marginalized Cayan women to safely dive to harvest lionfish, dissect and analyze stomach content for a new monitoring program, and prepare the catch for food and artisan markets. Brondo is collaborating with local conservation NGOs and the only women-owned small-scale "fish factory" on the Utila Cays to recruit women to train as lionfish hunters. In addition to becoming certified lionfish hunters and skilled in lionfish dissection, and fileting, participants will partake in a lionfish jewelry production workshop and receive supplies and support to market their products to the local tourist market in island shops, and beyond through an Etsy platform. Two women will also undergo additional scuba training through the dive master level so they can also work as local tour guides when dive tourism returns to the region. In addition to laying the foundation for a sustainable alternative revenue source, this project will help build a bridge between conservation non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the local community. Brondo will be evaluating and documenting community attitudes towards conservation policy throughout the course of the project.

For more information on this project, contact Brondo at kbrondo@memphis.edu.