A local startup is turning the harvest of lionfish – a venomous fish species – into economic opportunity for remote fishing communities in Belize.
Milwaukee-based Olacoral acts as a bridge between more than 100 fishermen, a Belizean cooperative and the global market, where demand for lionfish is four times the supply, its founders say.
The company was recently acquired by Milwaukee-based Agricycle Global, which retooled Olacoral’s model before spinning out the company, said Joshua Shefner, Agricycle founder and chief executive officer.
Once stripped of their venomous spines, cleaned and filleted, lionfish can be eaten and are similar in taste to white fish like grouper, Shefner said, adding that Olacoral plans to sell the fish directly to restaurants and seafood distributors.
Olacoral was founded to provide a sustainable solution for combating the negative impact that lionfish have on coral reef habitat and fish populations native to the Caribbean. The Indo-Pacific fish species, which has no natural predators in Atlantic waters, is categorized as an invasive species by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
By developing the lionfish supply chain, Olacoral provides artisanal fishermen with an additional revenue stream based on sustainable fishing practices. The 2,500 fishermen who participate in the artisanal fishing community in Belize typically generate revenue during the lobster and conch fishing season, Shefner added.
“Either (fishermen) went from having no income in the off season to having this, or they were illegally overfishing the lobster and conch outside of the season which is unsustainable for the populations there,” Shefner said. “This gives them an alternative to support families.”
Through Olacoral, small boat fisherman harvest lionfish during the off season and then sell their catch to a large cooperative which is responsible for processing the fish. Olacoral then purchases the lionfish from the cooperative before selling it to the global market.
Olacoral’s vision of leveraging sustainable fishing practices to generate economic impact is not far off from Agricycle’s mission, whose goal is to transform waste into opportunity.
Agricycle, which Shefner launched in 2017, engineers and builds solar dehydrators in developing countries so local women can dry surplus tropical fruits. The company buys the dehydrated fruit from workers and then packages, markets and sells the dried fruits in the U.S. as a fair-trade product.
“Agricycle is a great parent to Olacoral and was instrumental in refining our strategic vision to develop a supply chain in Belize that will touch the lives of thousands of fisherfolk and give the reef a fighting chance against the lionfish invasion,” Olacoral chief operating officer Michael Paredes said in a statement.
As part of the acquisition, Agricycle co-founder Claire Friona will lead Olacoral alongside the company’s CEO, Anthony Valiulis. The company has three full-time employees and is currently in the process of raising their first round of funding, Shefner said.
“I’m excited to bring Agricycle’s model to a new mission with a different neglected resource and step into a new leadership role,” Friona said in a statement. “Olacoral is the only sustainable seafood company catching fish that can’t be overexploited.”