Is the Lionfish a threat to the Cypriot Ecosystem?

“The increasing numbers of lionfish around Cyprus created the need to create a platform that allows scientists to monitor their abundance and distribution in the area so that we can control their populations and their negative effects,”

According to the researchers working on the project, the lionfish is reproducing rapidly and in the Mediterranean no predator has yet been identified. It consumes mainly native fish and invertebrates found in the marine area of Cyprus, including species of commercial value, having the potential result of disruption of local biodiversity and fishing stocks.

As numbers proliferate, so have fears of the flamboyantly coloured fish posing the biggest ecological setback to ecosystems in the Mediterranean – which is already under pressure from pollution, tourism and over-exploitation. In the EU, Cyprus has become “the first line of defence” against the lionfish invasion.

With mounting evidence of the species’ capacity to outcompete other fish, the Cypriot government has increasingly come round to the idea of organised culls – acknowledging that if the pest is not brought under control lionfish will have an effect on commercial fishing.

A government spokesman said:

“If culls prove to be an effective tool in managing this problem we will apply it for sure. It is illegal in Cyprus to hunt using scuba diving equipment but in this case we are permitting it. We can’t say we’re not worried.”

On an island dependent on tourism, the department is taking measures to inform the public ahead of summer. Although there have been no known fatalities caused by lionfish stings, human contact with the venom is horribly painful as fishermen have discovered pulling catches from nets.

The first cull was held in a marine protected area off Cape Greco, with prizes handed out for harpooning the smallest and largest fish. The government is keen to encourage local fishermen and divers to get involved in the hunt.”

Lionfish, have no natural enemies, laboratory dissections had proved they were also furnished with ferocious appetites. “They eat everything. Culling this invasive species is the only effective way to reduce their numbers and ensure marine-protected areas continue to regenerate.”

In addition to removal action teams, surveillance platforms to monitor lionfish were being developed as part of the EU-funded programme.

 “This is a regional problem and our insights and knowledge will be transferred and replicated in surrounding countries.”

Global warming and the rise in sea temperatures have encouraged the invasion.

Scientists believe expansion works to the Suez Canal have also played a role, by enabling the toxic fish to migrate from native habitats in the Red Sea. The canal, which is one of the world’s most important waterways, was widened and deepened to cater for ever-bigger container ships only three years ago.

“That may have saved time and money but to do it without any biosecurity measures in place was mad,”

 “The oceans are bleeding invasive and damaging species into the Mediterranean like a cut artery.”

Lionfish were by far the greatest offenders with the highest impact on marine ecology because they are such voracious and adept predators. Environmental watchdogs have said invasive species are now among the top five leading causes of biodiversity loss globally. In the western Atlantic lionfish have been linked to the reduction of coral reef fish by about 65%.

Culls have proved highly effective in the Caribbean where the species has been blamed for destruction of coral reefs, diminishing populations of other fish and vast ecological damage.

“In these waters I think we may have missed the chance to eradicate them completely because they will spread as the seas warm,”

There is still time to control the population especially in marine-protected areas. And even better lionfish could be good business. In all of this there is a silver lining, as firm-fleshed fish they taste absolutely wonderful. There’s definitely a niche market to be had putting lionfish on dinner tables.