Lionfish are invading the Mediterranean, and scientists fear the worst

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Lionfish, while beautiful, are disastrous for the ecosystems they invade. Photo: Courtesy of Peter Miller/Flickr

The lionfish is one of the most disastrous invasive aquatic species in the world, and a new study published Tuesday in the journal Marine Biodiversity Records has confirmed for the first time that they have now started to spread to the Mediterranean Sea — a development that scientists warn may result in a “ecological disaster.”

“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,” Demetris Kletou, a researcher at the Marine & Environmental Research Lab in Cyprus and the co-author of the study, told Plymouth University.

“But we’ve found that lionfish have recently increased in abundance, and within a year have colonized almost the entire southeastern coast of Cyprus, assisted by sea-surface warming,” he continued.

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In the paper, researchers described what they believe to be the early stages of a full-fledged lionfish invasion off the coast of Cyprus. The paper documented 24 separate reports of lionfish between 2014 and 2015.

For years, there wasn’t much worry in the Mediterranean Sea about lionfish invading as marine biologists assumed the waters of the Mediterranean were too cold for the warm-water fish. But water temperatures have risen over the past decade, making the area habitable for the lionfish — and that could be terrible news for other species of fish in the region.

While the signature stripe pattern on the fish might look beautiful, lionfish can wreak havoc on an ecosystem. They will eat essentially anything they can get their mouths on according to biologists, and they have almost no natural predators.

The lionfish spawn at rapid rates, and as showcased by the damage they have done in the coastal waters of the southeast United States and the Caribbean, they can decimate local populations of shrimp and fish — which could be dire for a region of the world that depends so heavily on the prosperity of its seas for business.

“If we act within the next couple of weeks — if the authorities … mobilize people to kill off these fish as quickly as possible — then they might be able to avert an ecological disaster,” Jason Hall-Spencer, a marine biology professor at Plymouth University and the other co-author of the study, told the Washington Post. “People’s livelihoods are at stake if this gets out of control.”

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