“Training” wild sharks to eat lionfish might sound like a good idea. But what happens if they are actually being “trained” to attack divers?
Since the lionfish invasion hit the news, people have suggested that native predators will eat and control invasive lionfish. For more information check out our previous posts The Great Debate: Predators vs Lionfish and Who’s “Lyin'” about Lionfish?. But with current evidence suggesting that the current level of predation by native predators is not enough to control lionfish (Hackerott et al. 2013 and Raymond et al. 2014) people have started to suggest “training” native predators to eat lionfish by feeding speared lionfish to sharks, grouper, barracuda, eels, and other predators. A recent paper reports that individual lionfish that were tethered in place on reefs where divers frequently spear lionfish (and presumably feed them to the local predators) were eaten by native predators. Authors claim this is evidence that native predators can in fact be “trained” to eat lionfish. However, there has been an unfortunate consequence of divers attempting to “train” predators to eat lionfish. It seems that instead of learning to associate lionfish with food, predators like sharks and barracuda are associating divers with food. This is leading to uncharacteristically aggressive behavior towards divers as seen in the video above. As a SCUBA diver with over 10 years of experience, I am very comfortable diving with sharks in a natural setting. Personally, though, I would not like sharks to start expecting me to bring snacks every time I enter the water.
If sharks and other native predators naturally learn to eat lionfish with time and begin to control them, that would be great. But the lionfish invasion is happening now with many negative impacts expected for the near future (more background on the lionfish invasion- Marine Monster Mash: Lionfish and Photography Friday: Lionfish). The only way we currently have to control invasive lionfish is through directly removing them (Barbour et al. 2011, Frazer et al. 2012, and Green et al. in press). It would be very unfortunate if the increased aggression of sharks and other predators from failed efforts to “train” them to eat lionfish prevents SCUBA divers from being able to safely remove lionfish in the future.
Efforts to spear and remove lionfish should certainly continue, but reef managers, lionfish derby organizers, dive shops, and individual scuba divers should consider the potential consequences (to the safety of humans as well as the future of coral reefs) of attempting to feed speared lionfish to native predators. Instead, I suggest taking them home and eating them yourself or with friends! They are very tasty and easy to prepare. Grab a copy of the Lionfish Cookbook for ideas!