It turns out the sea-to-table strategy to wipe out Florida’s invasive lionfish is more expensive and complicated than people thought two years ago.
In 2016, Gainesville-based non-profit Reefsavers.org started a campaign with fishing companies to spear the predator fish out of coastal waters and onto local restaurants’ menus.
Reefsavers President Joe Glass estimates his organization made — at most — a net profit of $100 from the one-month venture. He said each step of getting the fish into restaurants became too costly.
“The event didn’t raise any real funds,” Glass said. “We basically broke even on the event.”
Here’s how the process worked, according to Glass: Divers caught the fish in waters around the state and sold it to a distributor for $5 to $8 a pound depending on where in Florida they’re located. A distributor picked up and fileted the fish, taking the cost to $24 for a single filet. Add in transportation, labor and distributor mark-up. Then a restaurant marked it up.
“You’re at a fish plate that’s 50 or 60 bucks,” Glass said. That’s a price few customers are willing to pay at most Gainesville restaurants.
Within Glass’ supply chain, one of his contracted fishermen never got paid. Ryan Bone owns Lion Dish LLC near Fort Walton Beach. In October 2016, Lion Dish speared 320 pounds of lionfish for Glass’ organization. This is a video clip of one of his company’s hunts that month:
Bone said Inland Seafood, an Atlanta-based company, picked up the fish for distribution to Gainesville. Glass maintains he never received from Inland proof of that shipment, so he didn’t pay Bone for his lionfish catch.
Bone said he confirmed the delivery with Inland Seafood and in February 2017 sued Glass for $3,416 in Alachua County court. Judge Thomas Jaworski in July determined Bone was entitled to a $2,500 payment from Glass, but Glass has not paid him.
“We never got confirmation that we received his catch,” Glass said. Inland sales manager Mike Hulsey said any outstanding disagreement between Bone and Glass does not involve his company.
In a separate court issue this month, the state Department of Agriculture filed a complaint against Reefsavers for failing in September to renew its non-profit registration, a violation of the Florida Solicitation of Contributions Act. Glass must now pay an administrative fine of $500, plus any other costs a judge might award.
He blames the registration lapse on an address change and said he’s already filed paperwork with the state to renew the registration.
An uphill and costly battle
The Lionfish Invasion Tour, as Glass called it, lasted only a month and also cost the restaurants money. The owner of Taste, a Vietnamese restaurant, said it collected only 10 percent of a diner’s lionfish purchase during Glass’ campaign.
“The fish they were sending us were so small that we could barely do anything with it,” Hung Nguyen said. “Technically, we lost money doing that, but we did it as helping the cause.”
Lionfish established themselves in Florida’s coastal waters by the early 2000s, and now the problem is out of control. Female lionfish, according to the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), lay two million eggs per year, and a fish native to Indonesian waters has now spread throughout the Atlantic.
That’s why Bone got involved with lionfish hunting.
“People have jumped in it — ourselves included — to try to make a little money while helping the environment,” he said.
Glass applied to NOAA and the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council to conduct experimental trapping of the fish. If he can pull in more at once, he figures, the economics might make more sense.
“No one’s going to go out into the ocean and spend their own time to harvest lionfish without compensation for it,” Glass said, or at least, “not enough people on a massive level to put a dent in it.”
Margaret DesRosiers contributed reporting.