Florida-based startup Inversa has found a way to turn Lionfish – an invasive fish species – into durable, sustainable leather that can be used in shoes, bags, wallets, and accessories.
Established in 2020, the company’s goal is to create a lucrative supply chain that will encourage fishers to hunt for this invasive species causing significant damage to coral reefs and their ecosystem.
Experts speculate that people have been dumping unwanted lionfish from home aquariums into the Atlantic Ocean for up to 25 years. Since lionfish are not native to Atlantic waters, they have very few predators, reports Ocean Service.
Invasive lionfish have an unsatiable appetite, and with no natural predators, they can kill up to 79 per cent of young marine life within five weeks of entering a coral reef system. Many fish it preys on eat algae from coral reefs; without them, algae growth goes unchecked, killing off the reefs. The result is the degradation of an entire coral reef system.
At the same time, female lionfish release 25,000 eggs every few days, which means their populations can grow exponentially.
“You can see the impacts on the reefs when you dive now – it’s less vibrant, it’s less cacophonous,” Aarav Chavda, founder of Inversa, told The Guardian.
“We know there are solutions for some of the problems – such as coral-friendly sunscreens to help protect the reefs – but nobody’s been able to do anything about the lionfish.”
According to the startup, removing these invasive fish allows the reef ecosystems to rehabilitate.
Lionfish are supplied by local fishermen, where they are delivered to a central processing facility in Tampa. The fish meat is sent to restaurants while the skin is collected and sent to a tannery in Ohio.
Afterwards, the hides (fish skin) go through a 60-step tanning process in which the leather is dried and treated with chemicals to have the same look, feel, and strength as standard animal-based leather on the market.
“We’re very proud that every part of the fish is used,” Chavda tells Fast Company. “The tannery is also focused on preserving resources; less than a cup of wastewater is produced for every hide.”
Inversa has begun collaborating with several brands, including Teton Leather Company and P448, an Italian footwear label. It hopes to work with more companies and expand into other invasive animal species as leather alternatives in the future.