Sharks “taught” to eat poisonous lionfish on Cuban reefs

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Image credit: National Geographic

HAVANA, Cuba, Tuesday September 30, 2014 – A Cuban diver has come up with a novel way of controlling rising numbers of invasive lionfish by feeding them to the sharks off the coast of the communist Caribbean country.

A venomous and voracious intruder, the IndoPacific lionfish poses a serious threat to coral reefs in the Caribbean, Florida, the Gulf of Mexico, Central America, and northern South America.

Beautiful but deadly, these fish have the potential to disrupt coral reef ecosystems as predators that out-compete most other species for food resources, yet have few known natural predators of their own to keep their numbers in check.

Cuban diver Andres Jiminez is nevertheless working on plans to level the playing field.

A demonstration of the courageous diver’s strategy was photographed by French marine biologist Mathieu Foulquie during a trip to Cuba’s popular tourist attraction the Gardens of the Queen National Marine Park.

“The pictures show the hunt for lionfish, and demonstrate how local guides are trying to control the invasive species by training sharks to eat them,” Foulquie told Britain’s Daily Mail.

“My diving instructor, Andres Jimenez, who is also a marine biologist, shot a lionfish with his pole spear and presented it to the Caribbean reef sharks swimming around us.

“One of the sharks swam directly towards him to catch the lionfish.

“The lionfish is an invasive species in the Caribbean, but native Caribbean predators like sharks, or grouper fish don’t eat them.

“If the sharks can be taught to consume them, however, they will naturally regulate them.”

At a depth of twenty-five-metres, Foulquie watched as Jiminez carefully caught the lionfish and fed it to the shark, an experiment which has been in practice since 2011, according to the Daily Mail.

The Frenchman nevertheless stressed the “Don’t try this at home” caveat.

“Only specialists in shark behaviour can try this kind of experiment, and ordinary divers and photographers should never try to feed them.

“From a scientific point of view, we don’t know how successful the project is. But, apparently, recent videos show native top predators are starting to eat lionfish without them being previously speared by divers,” Foulquie added.

A reduction in lionfish numbers is essential given that their diet consists of numerous shrimp, crabs, and other crustaceans, including juveniles of the commercially important spiny lobster. They are also responsible for great reductions in fish numbers on reefs where they become established, and prey on herbivorous fishes that consume macroalgae and help protect corals from algal overgrowth.

A critical issue in controlling their numbers is their huge reproductive potential and age of reproductive maturity, moreover.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) researchers have determined that lionfish reach sexual maturity within two years and spawn multiple times during the spawning season, which may be year-round. Each spawn can produce up to 30,000 eggs.

Scientists believe that lionfish populations will continue to grow and are unlikely to be culled by conventional means.

Due to their fecundity, rapid and widespread distribution, adaptability to a variety of shallow and deep habitats, and behaviour, it is thought that the lionfish invasion places coral reef ecosystems throughout the Americas at significant risk.

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  • Nancy Saul-Demers

    Oh, no, PLEASE! So many well-meaning folks have tried to “teach” predators to hunt lionfish. We’ve been there and done that with sharks, grouper and morays to name a few. Over many years of attempts, we’ve simply taught predators to be more aggressive in seeking an easy meal from divers, putting both the predators and the divers at risk. And it’s not needed! Solid science tells us efforts are far more effective if focused on teaching fishermen to hunt lionfish quickly and safely, on teaching chefs how to handle them safely and serve them up in a myriad of delicious dishes, on teaching people to ask for lionfish at restaurants and resorts and to cook them at home and to teaching women and youth how to make sought-after jewellery from lionfish spines, fins and tails.

    • Independent Thinker

      Who is this “we” anyway? I have a strange feeling that this sounds like the spirit of our arrogant imperialist neighbor.

  • Vere Palmer

    The main point is to control the fish. Why do you think your idea is better that what’s being practice in Cuba? Why not support both efforts?

  • Simon Walsh

    IN some destinations they have found that the sharks have become so aggressive that they have to ban lionfish hunting altogether because it became too dangerous. The sharks learned ONE thing, and that is associate divers with food. So far there is no evidence that they have made the jump to learning to eat healthy lionfish hiding in the reef. Divers have been bitten by barracudas and morays who they were trying to teach to eat lionfish. Across the entire region the best practice is now recognized to NOT to feed predators. This is coming from someone on the front lines with over 5000 lionfish hunted so far. Education on how to clean them, cook them and eat them is the best idea right now and being followed all over the region.

  • Chris

    What´s even worse, no one notices that this shark has a hook in his mouth. It´s really sad to see what humans do to nature!