Will a shark attack a lionfish? Not if Mother Nature has her own way. That’s why a group of “crazy” scuba divers have been risking their own lives and limbs to “train” sharks off of the Cuban coast to develop a taste for the exotic, beautiful, but destructive lionfish that have infested the waters of the Caribbean — eating the lobster, shrimp, and crab that balance the ecosystem there, not to mention keep the local economy up and running.
Since 2011, the divers have been spearing the rogue lionfish and then carefully feeing them to the deadly sharks that patrol the reef area off Cuba, looking for food. Because the lionfish are not native to the Caribbean sea, the sharks there would simply ignore them without the training from daring divers.
But by coming close enough to feed the lionfish to the sharks, the divers risk that the sharks will start to associate the humans, as well the lionfish, with the prospect of a tasty meal.
“I’ve been a diver for more than 10 years and have never felt threatened by a shark,” said marine biologist Serena Hackerott, who called the divers “crazy” for hand-feeding lionfish to the sharks. “I might not feel so comfortable, though, if sharks began to expect snacks every time I enter the water.”
Lionfish are prized as pets for their exotic beauty — and that’s how they got into Caribbean waters in the first place. In the 1980s, lionfish were traded heavily around Miami, Florida. But as their owners grew tired of them, or many went unpurchased, they were thrown into the sea, where they continued to breed.
Each lionfish spawn consists of about 30,000 eggs, and the fish spawn numerous times every year — leading to a rapid infestation of the creatures that have no natural predators. That’s why ecologists are trying to teach sharks to attack the fish, no matter the risk to themselves.
“From a scientific point of view, we don’t know how successful the project is,” said French marine biologist Mathieu Foulquie. “But, apparently, recent videos show native top predators are starting to eat lionfish without them being previously speared by divers.”
The lionfish problem is not confined to the Cuban coastline. Any coral reef environment in the Caribbean or Gulf of Mexico could be at significant risk due to the ravenous lionfish. But Foulquie warns against amateur divers attempting to train sharks to attack the problem.
“Only specialists in shark behavior can try this kind of experiment, and ordinary divers and photographers should never try to feed them,” he says.
[Image via Houston Chronicle]