With the invasive lionfish catching on as a top choice for sustainable seafood, restaurants are paying cullers top dollar for lionfish fresh off the reef.
But still, some cullers are feeding their catch to marine predators like eels and sharks, and it’s changing those animals’ natural behavior for the worse.
Cayman 27’s Joe Avary spoke with one diver who said he’s lucky to have all his fingers intact after a close encounter with a moray eel.
“It happened so fast, it was in a blink of an eye he bit me,” said Cayman United Lionfish League founding member John Ferguson.
He described his close encounter with a moray eel during a lionfish hunt at dusk almost four years ago.
“My wife and I were swimming along about 80 feet of water, and I saw a really big lionfish in a little crack down below me,” he said. “As soon as I cocked the spear, the eel bit me in the hand.”
Blood poured from his hand as he started his ascent. He assessed the damage during his safety stop.
“As an automotive technician, as a profession, my fingers are very important and the first thing I did was I looked down and the cloudy water of blood to make sure I had all five fingers left, which I did,” he recounted.
It took more than two dozen stitches to sew his hand back together. Pictures show the severity of the wound.
“This one was wide open almost to the bone, this was split all the way down the side here from the teeth,” he said, holding up his once-injured hand.
Mr. Ferguson told Cayman 27 ocean predators like eels and sharks have learned to associate divers with a free lunch. Encounters like his, he says are increasingly common.
“People that are getting harassed by eels and myself getting bit by an eel, as a result of people feeding lionfish to eels,” said Mr. Ferguson, who pointed out that feeding marine life to other marine life in Cayman waters is against the law.
He said all cullers should carry a containment device and remove their catch from the sea.
“If you shoot a fish, you take the fish with you. Don’t leave it on the bottom, don’t feed it to a snapper, an eel, a shark, anything. Take it with you,” said Mr. Ferguson.
The Department of Environment has advised against the practice for years, but Mr. Ferguson said some dive professionals persist in feeding lionfish to wildlife to entertain guests and boost tip revenue.
“Whatever the reason it is that they’re doing it, it’s got to stop because people are going to get hurt doing this,” he said. “I got hurt.”
Mr. Ferguson said divers should exercise caution around marine wildlife. He said lionfish cullers should keep an extra eye out for marine predators, and always bring a containment device for the fish.