Close-up view of a common lionfish (Pterois miles) courtesy of Shutterstock, Copyright: Henner Damke

Researchers bidding to control the spread of lionfish throughout the Mediterranean Sea have launched a citizen science project aimed at tracking their movements.

The venomous species was first recorded off the coast of Cyprus six years ago, the belief being that they travelled from native habitats in the Red Sea.

However, a lack of common predators – coupled with lionfish’s breeding habits – means population numbers have increased dramatically.

Now scientists from Cyprus and the UK, working as part of the RELIONMED project, have developed an online portal for people to report sightings of the species.

Located on the MedMIS platform, initially created to monitor invasive species within marine protected areas (MPAs), it aims to help the researchers to identify areas of high lionfish abundance and priority and guide them as to where the most urgent action is required.

RELIONMED is funded by a €1,676,077 grant from the European Union’s LIFE programme, and involves the University of Plymouth along with a number of governmental and environmental organisations.

Research Assistant Periklis Kleitou, who is working on the project with Professor of Marine Biology Jason Hall-Spencer and Senior Research Fellow Dr Sian Rees, said:

“Citizen science is emerging as a very useful and cost-effective method to monitor biodiversity changes. The Mediterranean is facing drastic changes and sea users such as divers, fishers and bathers can provide substantial data which wouldn’t otherwise be accessible to researchers. Through the system, sea users can easily report their lionfish sightings, and become an integral part of helping us understand changes over time, season, environment and pressures.”

Lionfish are native to the Pacific and Indian oceans, but ‘invasions’ have become more common in recent years. Female lionfish can produce around two million eggs each year, with their offspring maturing quickly, consuming native species and colonising reef systems.

Since its launch two years ago, the RELIONMED partners have sought to develop an understanding of the current and future threats the species poses, and the most effective steps to address them.

In May this year, they held the first in a series of removals designed to remove the lionfish from coastal waters, at the same time organising social awareness surveys to assess public attitudes to the species.

Professor Hall-Spencer, Principal Investigator for the Plymouth element of the project, said:

“There are parts of the world where lionfish are part of the natural ecosystem. Until recently the Mediterranean was not warm enough for them, but lionfish are increasingly colonising these waters bringing with them a serious threat of habitat destruction and species extinction. Unless we act now, there could be lasting environmental and economic damage.”

Lionfish removals in Cyprus (picture by Periklis Kleitou)

RELIONMED is a four-year project, funded by €1,676,077 from the European Union’s LIFE programme, seeking to stem a lionfish invasion in the Mediterranean Sea.

The venomous fish has been identified as the most ecologically harmful species to be invading southern European waters, and is responsible for significant impacts on biodiversity due to its predatory behaviour and rapid reproduction.

Working with the University of Cyprus, Plymouth scientists will be helping to coordinate a number of different activities, including the development and implementation of an early surveillance and detection system, and a removal response strategy.

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