Alien Lionfish Are Invading the Mediterranean Sea

June 29, 2016 | Erica Tennenhouse

Common lionfish (Pterois miles) at Shaab Angosh reef, Egyptian Red Sea
Photo credit: Alexander Vasenin/Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

These fish may cause serious ecological damage and harm to divers.

Venomous lionfish, known for their ability to invade new territories, are now spreading rapidly through the Mediterranean Sea, according to a study published in Marine Biodiversity Records.

These lionfish first appeared in the Mediterranean around the same time they were first reported in Florida waters, in the early 1990s. A full-blown invasion followed in the US, spreading to the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea, where the lionfish now threaten reef ecosystems.

Meanwhile, more than two decades passed before a second sighting occurred in the Mediterranean Sea, leading scientists to believe this region was safe from invasion.

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"Until now, few sightings of the alien lionfish Pterois miles have been reported in the Mediterranean and it was questionable whether the species could invade this region like it has in the western Atlantic," study lead author Demetris Kletou, of the Environmental Research Lab in Cyprus, said in a press release.

Information on lionfish encounters obtained from divers, fishermen, and photo- and video-documented sightings revealed that these fish have colonized almost the entire southeastern coast of Cyprus in just one year.

With their broad diet and ability to spawn every 4 days throughout the year, it is no wonder lionfish are successful invaders. They also have well-developed anti-predator defenses in the form of protective venomous spines, which help them survive and proliferate in environments inhabited by novel predators.

Rising sea temperatures have facilitated the lionfish range expansion. In fact, more than 1000 alien species are currently found in the Mediterranean, and the majority of them are species that thrive in warm waters.

One such species is the pufferfish, which has spread through the Mediterranean, disrupting food chains and wiping out native species.

A lionfish invasion would have the same damaging impacts. Lionfish also put divers at risk of being painfully stung if they are to accidentally brush against the animal’s venomous spines.

Study co-author Jason Hall Spencer of the School of Marine Science and Engineering at Plymouth University says, “By publishing this information, we can help stakeholders plan mitigating action, such as offering incentives for divers and fishermen to run lionfish removal programmes, which have worked well at shallow depths in the Caribbean, and restoring populations of potential predators, such as the dusky grouper.”

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