Rachel Bowman The Lionfish Huntress
Growing up, Rachel Bowman didn't want to be ladylike and proper, she wanted to be playing in the mud or out on the water with her dad, a commercial boat captain. His travels inspired Rachel to move to the Florida keys in her early 20s, where she's been ever since. Rachel was driving a boat for an avid scuba diver when she saw him coming up with fish like nothing she'd ever seen: lionfish. Rachel became scuba-certified, got in the water, and became the Lionfish Huntress. Today she dives off her boat, the Britney Spears and hunts lionfish commercially, selling them to restaurants and grocery stores, and collaborating with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to gather data and raise awareness about this invasive species and healthy and sustainable seafood.
FAST FACTS ABOUT RacheL
Where she’s from: Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina
Grew up with: mother and father who were divorced
Where she lives now: Marathon, Florida
Growing up she wanted to be: ghostbuster by day, Solid Gold Dancer by night
Now she’s: a commercial fisherwoman, hunting invasive lionfish
Tell us about yourself growing up!
I'm originally from a little island off the coast of North Carolina called Wrightsville Beach. My family was very Southern in all aspects. I was raised to think that what other people thought of you mattered a lot and that you didn't embarrass your family, and you had manners, and you acted right.
My mother and father divorced when I was a baby. My father was a shrimp boat captain and a charter boat captain. I grew up with this romantic image of my dad off on a ship somewhere. But when he was around, I was a hundred percent daddy's girl. I liked to be on the boats. I liked to play in the mud. My dad was an amateur racecar driver. At one point, he owned a junkyard. He did the kind of stuff that I wanted to do. I didn't want to take tennis lessons. I didn't want to hang out at the country club. I didn't want to put on dresses and go to Sunday school. I wanted to go get ringworm, which I did.
I was also a big giant nerd. I liked reading. I liked dinosaurs. I liked scary movies, and I still am pretty much a big nerd. I still like dinosaurs and reading and skulls and mostly things that aren't really considered ladylike.
What did you think you might do when you grew up?
I wanted to be a Solid Gold Dancer and a Ghostbuster. I figured we'd tape the Solid Gold dancing shows during the day, and then at night I could go hunt ghosts. I always thought that I would be a writer. I'm really never super happy unless I’ve got a giant stack of books close to me, so I really wanted to do something in that field. Commercial fishing: that was a man's job. It never even crossed my mind.
How did you end up in the Florida Keys?
I went to a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert the day after September 11. It was a whole new scary world, and I ran into three ex-boyfriends. I thought, “I should change something in my life because tomorrow I could die in a plane crash.” I decided to move to the Florida Keys. My father was a charter boat captain down here in the late '70s and early '80s, and I'd always heard stories about it. I ended up right in the middle of the Florida Keys, in a little town called Marathon, and I've been here ever since.
What did you do when you moved to Marathon?
I ended up waiting tables and tending bar. About a year after I moved here, in 2002, I was lucky enough to wait on a gentleman named Adolphus Busch IV. He was a regular. He is in the Anheuser-Busch family. He only lived down here during the winter, and before he left to go back to St. Louis, he said, “Hey, do you mind if I leave you with a set of keys to my house? Maybe a couple times this summer you could just go by and check on it.” The next year he came down and hired me to run errands for him, and every year I ended up working for him a little bit more.
The very first dive, I got in the water with Adolphus and I speared a lionfish, and I'm not sure that I've ever got in the water since then without a spear.
How did you get into hunting lionfish?
Adolphus is involved in a lot of conservation issues. He was involved in funding a large artificial reef down here in the Keys. He spends his winters down here, and he is an avid scuba diver. He always enjoyed spear fishing, and when the lionfish invasion started, he started spearing them to get them out of the water. In 2011 he hired me to run his boat while he's diving. I got my captain's license, and he's getting out of the water with these fish, and they look like a fish in a Mardi Gras costume.
I'm watching this guy get out of the water with these fish, and I'm hearing him talk about what he sees down there, and it's starting to sound really cool. I always just thought of scuba diving as people just in the water, swimming around, looking at stuff. It never sounded that exciting, but hearing Adolphus talk about it and seeing the fish that he brought up, I thought, wow, that's cool.
So, I got certified to dive. The very first dive, I got in the water with Adolphus and I speared a lionfish, and I'm not sure that I've ever got in the water since then without a spear. I continued my dive training and education, and I went through a Nitrox certification, and I became a rescue diver, and I'm now a dive master, which is as far as I need to go.
How did hunting lionfish become a business for you?
I started diving with other people during the summer, putting pictures on Facebook and Instagram. At this point, I'm giving our fish to a local restaurant, and that restaurant is selling them. I was contacted by the FWC, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, who saw my pictures on Facebook. The FWC said, “We've been seeing pictures of you online with these lionfish. We also see you posting that you are giving your fish to this restaurant. We think what you're doing is awesome because you're harvesting this invasive species, but the way you're doing it is illegal, so we want to help you continue doing this in the right way.”
I didn't know it's illegal to give seafood to a restaurant and for them to sell it. If you go eat at that restaurant and you eat a grouper, and you get violently sick, there needs to be a paper trail that says, okay, this grouper came from here, we bought this grouper from this fisherman, and this fisherman caught it in this area of water. That's important that there needs to be accountability there, and in my own ignorance it just didn't really occur to me.
The FWC was so great about it. They weren't trying to punish me. They wanted to encourage me. They issued me a commercial license to sell lionfish, for free. They didn't even make me pay for it.
Is that because the lionfish are invasive and you're helping to control that population?
Absolutely. They had a big promotional campaign to try and encourage the harvest of lionfish, encourage people to spear them and encourage people to eat them. You've got to scuba dive to get them, and you have to spear them. You can't get them with a net or a fishing pole. You actually have to handle the fish, and people were afraid of them, and then here I am. I'm 5 foot 2, I weigh 115 pounds, and I'm holding up my lionfish in my bikini. So, Amanda Nalley, the FWC public relations and media person, contacted me and said, “We'd really like to use some of your pictures, we want to make you the face of this because basically what we'd like to say is if this little girl can do it, so can you.”
They started using pictures of me, and I started selling the fish to restaurants and seafood markets. In 2016, a friend of mine that owns the largest seafood distributorship in South Florida contacted me and said, “I want you to come meet with a guy from Whole Foods. He has some questions about lionfish.”
We met, and David Ventura, the Southeast regional seafood buyer for Whole Foods, decided he wanted Whole Foods to start carrying lionfish. My fish ended up in the frozen food department at Whole Foods all over Florida.
You're taking an invasive species out of the water, but also if you choose lionfish on a menu, you're making a decision to eat something that is not overfished.
How did it feel having such a major distributor for the fish you harvested?
If Whole Foods says it's good, well, then it's got to be good. That really helped a lot with the credibility of lionfish as a healthy thing to eat. Lionfish are the lowest in mercury. They are the highest in the omega-3 fatty acids that are good for you. They're an incredibly lean fish. You're taking an invasive species out of the water, but also if you choose lionfish on a menu, you're making a decision to eat something that is not overfished.
The price that I was getting went up. Whole Foods to this day is very involved with lionfish. They sponsor a lot of the lionfish tournaments. They really just go out of their way to help us do what we're doing.
Do you collect data for the FWC?
Every time I sell fish, I fill out this little piece of paper that says I am selling you 106 pounds of lionfish. They have this map of the Florida Keys, and it's a grid, and you find the little square that's closest to where you actually plucked those fish out of the water, and that information is all on this trip ticket. They know within the range of a mile or two where those fish came from, the depth of water they were harvested in.
At the end of the year, I submit all of those tickets to the FWC. They want to know how is the commercial lionfish working? How is she doing? Where is she getting fish? How much is she selling them for? They want to know that because they want to encourage this market.
I also supply them throughout the year with samples of actual fish. They want to know what the lionfish are eating, and that also tells them where have these fish been? By studying gut content, they can tell, okay, was he up in the mangroves? Was he out on the reef? Was he out in deeper water on a wreck? Was he up in more of the grassy areas of the gulf? They can do a whole lot with stomach content.
Are there other people or organizations your collaborate with?
There are a number of organizations that I provide data to, from the FWC to a lady [who]'s a biologist for Mote Marine. She's also a Girl Scout troop leader. She wanted some fish to show her Girl Scouts how to dissect a fish. I've submitted fish to the IGFA [the International Game Fish Association]. Basically anyone that wants fish, I'll go get you fish just to help you, as far as the research side of it. I feel like the FWC has gone out of their way to help me so much that any opportunity I get to help another organization that's doing research, that's doing fieldwork, I try and do everything I can for them.
If you can keep lionfish out of an area, native populations come back, so that's great.
Do you think that the population of lionfish is ever going to be under control enough that commercial fishing of them will not be necessary?
There have been studies that have been completed in the Bahamas, where they've taken very specific, isolated sections of reef and they've been doing fish counts on them, and they've regularly harvested lionfish off of these areas, and they have seen a resurgence in native populations. If you can keep lionfish out of an area, native populations come back, so that's great.
Let’s talk about your boat, the Britney Spears!
Oh, my Britney.
I wanted my own boat. I had never bought a boat, and I had always been diving off of some guy's boat. My boyfriend and I started driving up and down the Keys to used boat lots. We went and looked at a boat that this old Greek man had for sale, and it was a 25-foot Stamas Tarpon 250. This guy had taken such great care of this boat. This boat is just incredible. It's out of my price range, but it's still just a beautiful boat. The boat's name was Britney, after his granddaughter. All of a sudden I just thought Britney Spears, like “Britney spears fish.” And I remember laughing, thinking, oh my god, that would be a really good boat name. I made him an offer on the boat, about 10 grand less than what he was asking, and he turned me down, and he had every right to.
A couple months went by and a friend of mine called me and said he knew of a boat up in Miami that was for sale, and he was pretty sure it was what I was looking for. We went up there and looked at it, and it was the exact same model and make. It hadn't been used. It had been sitting in a boathouse. The engines had very few hours on them. I could actually pay for this boat; my bank had already set me up with a loan, and it was my dream boat. I looked at my boyfriend and I said, “I feel really good about this boat,” and he said, “I think you need to buy this boat.”
We bought Britney and we brought her home, and before I did a single thing to that boat, I went to a lady, Renee, that does all the vinyl work for most of the boats here in town. I said, “Renee, I need you to design me a logo.” And she said, “What's the boat name?” And I said, “The Britney Spears,” and she said, “Are you serious?” I said, “Yes, ma'am.” and she designed me a silhouette of a girl with a pole spear and a lionfish.
My lionfish life has allowed me to have this incredibly, incredible large, far-ranging web of people in professions and capacities that I didn't really even know existed
What keeps you interested in lionfish and all the work that you're doing?
Through lionfish, I have gotten to travel to some of the most incredible places. I've gotten to go on a research cruise into the Gulf of Mexico with scientists from NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. I got to go on a submarine with people from the Smithsonian. I got interviewed by the New York Times. That is pretty awesome. In two weeks, I'm going to Tallahassee to speak in front of the House of Representatives about lionfish. That's incredible to me that scientists and researchers all over the world who do these incredible things think that I have information that is valuable. That's incredibly flattering. That's a really good feeling right there.
My lionfish life has allowed me to have this incredibly, incredible large, far-ranging web of people in professions and capacities that I didn't really even know existed, and that's awesome. Spearfishing as a sport is definitely male-dominated and it's a lot of ego-dominated, bigger-is-better, and there's a machismo that goes along with that. With lionfish, you've got really cool people that are in the water, they're spearing fish, but there's a lot more of camaraderie about it. We're all working for one common goal, which is to just get as many of them out of the water as possible.
They held a world championship last year, comprised of teams from all over the Gulf of Mexico, Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Florida, and myself and two other girls entered it as a team, and we won, and all the other teams were basically four-man teams. These three girls beat them and we got 926 fish in two days.
What fills your time outside of work?
Reading is my all-time favorite thing. I've recently really gotten into yoga. I'm enjoying how flexible I feel and how strong I feel. One of the advantages of living in South Florida, you can play in your garden year-round. I really like to play with my plants, my tomato plants and my pepper plants, or my pride and joy, 12 pineapple plants. I'm on the board of a couple different nonprofit organizations. I run a lionfish tournament every year to encourage other people to get in there. I like to go for bike rides, eat good food, drink good wine, tell my boyfriend how good looking he is.
Don't let other people put limitations on what you can actually do. Surround yourself with people that support you and lift you up and encourage you.
What advice would you give someone who wants to either get involved in fishing or be involved in conservation in some way?
Don't let other people put limitations on what you can actually do. Don't let someone tell you you can't do something or that you shouldn’t do something or that you can't do it because you're a girl. You might not be able to do it, but it won't be because you're a girl. Surround yourself with people that support you and lift you up and encourage you. Anyone that limits you as far as what you can do or what they say they think you can do, those aren't people that you need around.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Check out books Rachel loves and find out more about her!