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

Fishers and marine conservationists are launching the first organised culls of predatory lionfish in a bid to prevent their spread across the Mediterranean Sea.

The venomous species was first recorded off the coast of Cyprus around five years ago, with scientists believing that a recent widening and deepening of the Suez Canal allowed them to travel through from their native habitats in the Red Sea.

A lack of common predators, coupled with lionfish’s breeding habits, have meant numbers have increased dramatically with sightings everywhere from coastlines to the deep seas.

Scientists from the University of Plymouth are currently working in conjunction with governmental and environmental organisations on a four-year project, RELIONMED, funded by €1,676,077 from the European Union’s LIFE programme.

Since it launched in September 2017, they have been gathering evidence to develop a clear understanding of the current and future threats the species poses, and the most effective steps to address them.

They are now working to coordinate a series of culls, due to take place this May, which are designed to remove the lionfish from coastal waters and hopefully enable the habitats and other species they threaten to survive.

Professor of Marine Biology Jason Hall-Spencer is Principal Investigator for the Plymouth element of the project, working alongside Senior Research Fellow Dr Sian Rees and Research Assistant Mr Periklis Kleitou.

Professor Hall-Spencer said:

“There are parts of the world where lionfish are part of the natural ecosystem. Until recently the Mediterranean was not been warm enough for them to invade, but now it is and 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. Coastal communities rely on these waters for fishing and tourism, so changes have knock-on effects. Culling these invasive species is the only effective way to reduce their numbers and ensure marine protected areas continue to regenerate.”

Lionfish are native to the Pacific and Indian oceans, but ‘invasions’ have become more common in recent years, the most high profile being in the Caribbean and western Atlantic.

There, the species was first recorded off the coast of Florida in 1994, but by 2014 it was estimated that there were up to 1,000 lionfish per acre.

Female lionfish can produce around two million eggs each year, with their offspring maturing quickly, consuming native species and colonising reef systems.

The RELIONMED project aims to prevent that happening in the Mediterranean, although numbers have increased dramatically with groups of 20 or more lionfish now seen by scientists on a single dive.

The planned culls this May will be combined with a series of social awareness surveys in Cyprus, to assess whether public attitudes to lionfish are changing as the problem becomes more critical for local populations.

Professor Hall-Spencer’s research into lionfish has seen him working with scientists from the Marine & Environmental Research Lab in Limassol, which is also part of the RELIONMED project.

Periklis Kleitou said:

“The RELIONMED project on lionfish offers a great opportunity to improve public understanding, awareness, and participation in tackling environmental issues. Very importantly, RELIONMED will also provide information about the socioeconomic trade-offs of management measures against marine invasive species, a crucial aspect for implementation of the EU Regulation 1143/2014 on invasive alien species.”

Taming the lionfish

University scientists to play key role in tackling lionfish invasion

Lionfish are generalist carnivores and can feed on a variety of fish and crustaceans. These 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.

Their success at invading new territories stems from a combination of factors such as early maturation and reproduction, and venomous spines that deter predators, and they can quickly colonise reefs and reduce biodiversity in the area.


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