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The next wave in sustainable fashion is here. Move over cowhides and make room for exotic, sleek, fish leather made from the deeply dangerous lionfish.
Lionfish are an aggressive species that have taken over the natural ecosystems in the southeast of the U.S and the Caribbean coastal waters. They harm existing ecosystems as they compete for food and space with native fish like snapper and grouper. Scientists fear that lionfish will also kill off algae-eating parrotfish, which will, in turn, cause an overgrowth of seaweeds.
The history of how lionfish entered American waterways remains a mystery. Some suggest they were released into the waterways from an aquarium in the 1980s but this is unconfirmed. Since then, there are millions living around the Atlantic Ocean, from Boston to Brazil to Barcelona, thanks to how rapidly lionfish reproduce, with a female lionfish being said to release 50,000 eggs every three days for the rest of their lives. They have overtaken the Mediterranean, with similar devastating impacts on marine life, as they destroy coral reefs and entire oceanic food chains within the Caribbean Sea, Gulf of Mexico and the Western Atlantic.
Scuba diving enthusiast, Aarav Chavada, founder of INVERSA, saw first-hand on his dives in the Caribbean that coral reefs were slowly withering away. Seeing something he loved so much degrade sent him down a path of learning where he met diving activist groups, and nonprofit organisations concerned about coral reef health. That’s how he came to learn about the damage caused by the invasive lionfish.
Five years later, he and his co-founder, Roland Salatino, set up INVERSA to tackle the exponential supply of lionfish by using it in more than one way. They set to work with a mission to create an entire line of invasive leathers — true exotic leathers that are good for the planet.
The duo researched ways to turn the parasite into a promising product by experimenting with the fish’s hide. The Florida-based start-up handles the entire manufacturing process in America, where they process Lionfish hides by tanning them with chromium salts, dyeing them and then selling them to fashion companies to transform the leather products into usable everyday products like wallets, belts, cardholders, and handbags. In the next year, INVERSA will shift to ecological-friendly tanning solutions, zeolite, made from environmentally friendly minerals that contain aluminium and silicon compounds.
Presently, INVERSA partners with high fashion brands to supply fish leather for use in their products. One such brand is P448 — an Italian footwear brand that incorporated fish leather into the design and manufacturing process of its sneakers. INVERSA also emphasises that it is “flipping the script on current norms of sustainability” by going one step further to become regenerative.
This means that the production of fish leather brings more benefits to the marine ecosystem than it would have before it existed. In the case of the production of these sneakers, the use of fish leather saves up to 70,000 native reef fish, uses all parts of the lionfish, uses less than 400mL water to produce, and lastly, protects 79% of baby native reef fish.
INVERSA intends to expand its operations with a key focus on regeneration. The business is set up to pave the way for consistent demand for invasive species of lionfish, which otherwise remain uncaught by fishermen, who see little value in this fish. It sets up a cycle of paid opportunity for those affected by this invasion to help put a stop to it. They also source lionfish from several countries around the Gulf, where Lionfish is invasive (most commonly, these are areas where fishermen have an unstable regular income).
This consistent supply chain enables the invasive lionfish to be caught more frequently and thus allows for the reef ecosystems to rehabilitate. As mentioned above, each invasive lionfish can eat up to 70,000 native reef fish in its lifetime. So each fish removed from this ecosystem can protect up to 70,000 native reef fish, which, in turn, facilitates the rebuilding of reefs from the destruction caused.
However, anthropological research shows that creating fish leather is not an entirely new concept. In many Indigenous communities that have lived in coastal or riverine regions, fish leather was used for its remarkably strong properties formed out of their crisscrossing fibres. All across the world, from the Ainu tribe in Hokkaido, northern Japan, to the Inuit of Alaska, Hezhen of Northeast China, Sami of Sweden, and Nanai of Siberia, fish skin has been a staple in Indigenous communities’ traditional craftwork across the world.
The process is tedious, where fish skin must be scraped, softened and treated with tanning agents to transform them into durable leather. The fish used in these cases were fish that would have been otherwise eaten, like salmon, and not necessarily fish that were invasive to the community.
On the flip side, INVERSA is investigating a new line of fish leather, Dragonfin, made from the relative genus of carp that will be released in the coming year. Fish leather appears to be the fastidious way forward when combatting the effects traditional leather has on the environment and the production process. There’s nothing fishy about this.