Alli Candelmo, Ph.D., has remarkable experience in conservation outreach — from surveying reefs for marine parks in tiny Malaysian fishing villages to studying manta rays in Hawaii and netting lionfish in the Turks & Caicos islands.
Alli is enthusiastic about sharing ways the public can help remove lionfish from Keys waters — including “conservation by consumption” of the fish’s light, delicate white meat.
With an undergraduate degree in chemistry and a minor in natural resource management from Rutgers University, Alli later obtained a doctorate in ecology and evolution. Now age 40, she has forged a career that positively impacts the environment of the Florida Keys in big ways.
Keys Traveler: When did you first come to the Keys and why?
Alli Candelmo: I wanted to build on my studies of lionfish, and relocated to the Keys in July 2018 when the Invasive Species Program Manager position with Reef Environmental Education Foundation became available.
I’d already had experience with population dynamics and management strategies of invasive lionfish in the Cayman Islands and Turks and Caicos, where I was a research associate and lecturer helping communities improve removal efforts and gain a better understanding of invasive lionfish.
KT: What aspects of the Keys’ environment or way of life matter most to you?
AC: I’m a marine ecologist and love to be surrounded and immersed in the marine environment — from coral reefs to open ocean, mangroves, estuaries, bays and beaches. I am happiest when I’m near or in the water, surrounded by nature.
KT: Who or what inspired you to become passionate about respecting and protecting the Keys’ natural world?
AC: I have been passionate about protecting the natural world since I was a child. Marine ecosystems are where my heart is, and enjoying and protecting them is my primary personal and professional goal.
I spent a year in Borneo, Malaysia, working with a nonprofit and later with a scientist from Malaysia University. My work was immersive on a very remote island — population 20. It was there I learned to scuba dive. I’d only snorkeled once before. But I was hooked!
KT: How does that passion influence your profession?
Alli and a colleague work in the Keys’ underwater environment.
AC: My work with REEF is directly related to the passion I have for conserving marine ecosystems. Since moving to the Keys, the people I have met through work and friends have been inspiring and have each shown me, in their own way, the beauty and excitement the Keys has to offer.
KT: What are some ways, personally or through work, that you connect with or help to protect the local environment and unique lifestyle?
AC: Through work I organize community outreach events including lionfish workshops and derbies to educate the public of the threat of the invasive species, encourage regular removal of lionfish from the reefs to reduce impact on the native species and encourage consumption of lionfish as an alternative to those threatened native species.
I regularly volunteer for local community programs such as beach cleanup and marine debris removal events to reduce plastic impacts on our ecosystems. My boundary between “personal” and “work” is a fine line. As a scientist and “a local,” it makes it a lot more enjoyable.
KT: What keeps you energized, challenged or focused on your path?
AC: I think my experience developing hands-on science activities makes me a strong advocate for conservation of coastal and marine ecosystems.
Alli and a team of lionfish hunters display a satisfying catch, removing more of the invasive predators from Keys waters.
Throughout my career I have had the opportunity to be a part of more once-in-a-lifetime experiences than I could have ever dreamed — through travel, diving and research. These epic encounters with whales, sharks, manta rays, thousands of spawning grouper, coral blanketed seamounts, volcanoes, breathtaking views from the tops of mountains and turquoise seas keep me energized and focused.
KT: What message do you want your actions and example to communicate to people you encounter?
AC: I hope my actions communicate that conservation and outreach efforts can be enjoyable and lead to amazing opportunities, and encourage more people to become actively involved.
Being ecologically minded makes your activities more enjoyable. My philosophy has been to “say yes to everything,” which I believe evolves into new opportunities — and you get invited to do the really cool stuff.
KT: What’s your favorite natural or eco-friendly activity in the Keys?
AC: Breathing underwater is my favorite natural activity. I love scuba diving with a purpose, internationally and in the Keys. And if we’re spearing a few lionfish for dinner, it’s even better.