Researchers Look to Sharks to Help Control Invasive Lionfish


Few fish are as unwelcome in Florida waters as lionfish. This invasive species is causing no shortage of headaches for marine conservationists, and the efforts to stem their growth are pursuing slowly. While some state wildlife officials contend that anglers are the key to controlling the lionfish population, independent researchers have their own ideas. Some of these methods are seemingly far-fetched, such as using submarines to harvest lionfish in bulk, while others are attempting to train local predators to put the species on their menus. For years, experts have been attempting to train sharks and groupers to eat lionfish, but these efforts see only mixed success.

“The lionfish is an invasive species in the Caribbean, but native Caribbean predators like sharks, or grouper fish don’t eat them,” French marine biologist Mathieu Foulquie told the Daily Mail.

Or at least, they do not eat them naturally. Foulquie recently returned from a trip to Cuba’s Gardens of the Queen National Marine Park, where he tried feeding live lionfish to reef sharks. Although some of the sharks were willing to oblige researchers and snatch up a free meal, it was clear that the sharks were not overly enthusiastic. Of the many species of lionfish native to Asia, only the red and common lionfish have established populations in the Atlantic Ocean. The colorful fish are now causing a problem by eating too much prey fish and depopulating entire reef systems. On the flip side, the lionfish itself has very few predators. Some experts believe that predators like grouper and sharks are learning to target the lionfish for food, but many of their kills simply seem to be opportunistic.

Conservationists off the coast of Honduras has been trying to train sharks to eat these spiny fish since 2011, but little progress has been made. Now, many conservationists are increasing their efforts to recruit the fish’s most likely predator: humans.

A recent report from Jamaica showed a 66 percent drop in lionfish sightings near the island nation’s coast. Researchers believe this is a result of rising demand for lionfish meat, which at roughly $16 a pound here in the United States, is too good to pass up.

“After learning how to handle them, the fishermen have definitely been going after them harder, especially spear fishermen. I believe persons here have caught on to the whole idea of consuming them,” said marine biologist Dayne Buddo.

Fishermen do not need to exterminate the entire population, but instead just harvest enough fish for the ecosystem to regulate itself. Researchers say that a reduction of 75 percent of lionfish in the Caribbean will allow native fish to return to normal levels.

“Eradication is rarely a viable option for most invasive species because they just become too abundant, too quickly,” Al Dove, an invasive species expert and Senior Scientist at the Georgia Aquarium, told Time. “Usually resource managers look to control the problem and to help the ecosystem find a new balance where the invader is suppressed and plays a minor role, rather than overwhelming everything else.”

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