- Michael Bentley/Flickr
The Mediterranean is being invaded by a new species: the lionfish.
According to a new study, published in Marine Biodiversity Records, these beautiful but venomous fish have colonized the southeastern coastline of Cyprus in a single year, and their numbers are expected to grow.
The study authors believe the warming sea temperatures of the Mediterranean Sea and the 2015 expansion of the Suez Canal may be allowing the lionfish to expand their range. A wider and deeper canal makes it easier for lionfish larvae and swimming adults to gain access to the Mediterranean waters.
An infestation of lionfish could be a disaster for the local Mediterranean ecosystem.
Originally from the Pacific and Indian oceans, these creatures are notorious invaders, having already rapidly spread throughout the Caribbean and Western Atlantic. It is believed that the animals first appeared in the Atlantic near South Florida in the 1980s after being dumped from home aquariums, and they quickly grew into an established invasive species by the 2000s.
These non-native fish have very few predators, thanks to their long, poisonous spines. Even humans have to be careful around these fish because their sting is extremely painful and can cause paralysis, cardiac arrest, and even death by anaphylactic shock.
These prolific invaders have also demonstrated that they are highly adaptable, able to thrive in a range of water temperatures, depths, and salinity levels.
The invasion of these fish is particularly worrisome because they tend to eat their way through the food chain, devouring all kinds of local fish and crustaceans. As active top predators, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, lionfish consume over 50 species of fish, including some ecologically important species, such as reef fish, and economically important ones.
For example, lionfish feed on the young of snapper and grouper, which are both important commercial fish species. As a result, lionfish can have devastating consequences for the local fishing economy.
What can we do
Despite their poisonous spines, lionfish are slow-moving, making them easy to collect by divers and fishermen that take proper precautions and use the right equipment. They are also edible (once the spines are removed).
- Maria Papinikola
This is why scientists and fishermen have teamed up in the Western Atlantic to try to slow down the lionfish invasion. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has even created a number of initiatives and opportunities for divers, anglers, and commercial harvesters to remove and kill as many lionfish as possible in seasonal competitions and year-round events.
In the Mediterranean, the lionfish invasion is just getting started, but things can quickly escalate. Already, another invasive species, the puffer fish, has disrupted food chains and replaced native species, threatening local biodiversity in the Mediterranean. Without action, lionfish might be next.
“By publishing this information, we can help stakeholders plan mitigating action,” Jason Hall Spencer, author of the study and professor at Plymouth University, told The Independent. He suggests implementing removal programs like those in Florida as well as restoring populations of dusky groupers, a potential predator.