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Mediterranean Sea Comes Under Threat from Lionfish Invasion

Jul 07, 2016 12:41 AM EDT

Majestic but venomous, the lionfish has been a scourge to reef systems in the Caribbean - and now it is bringing its peskiness to the Mediterranean Sea. The common lionfish (Pterois miles) is a species alien to the Mediterranean ecosystem, but fishers and divers have reported an increased number of sightings of the invader.

The uptick in sightings is documented by a study published in the journal Marine Biodiversity Records. The research team, comprising scientists from the Cyprus-based Marine and Environmental Research (MER) Lab and England's Plymouth University, offers a distribution map showing that the invasive lionfish have established themselves across nearly the entire southeastern coast of Cyprus within a single year.

Previously, sightings of the fish in Mediterranean waters came but rarely. According to Science News, a lone lionfish sighting was recorded in 1991, but over two decades passed before the fish were encountered again, when two specimens were caught off the coast of Lebanon in 2012. Since then, lionfish have been spotted in waters off Cyprus, Turkey and Greece.

The good news is that the invasion is not too great, for the meantime. The journal article's abstract refers to "at least 23 different fish" reported. This gives marine ecologists time to act before the lionfish population gets out of control and possibly bring about irreversible damage to Mediterranean Sea reef systems.

They will have to act quickly. The article's lead author, MER Lab director Demetris Kletou, informed LiveScience that the Mediterranean was once thought to be an unsuitable habitat for lionfish breeding to take place successfully. But warming sea temperatures have cultivated an environment in which they may flourish.

Indeed, the researchers have found signs of lionfish mating activity in the Mediterranean. "It appears that the lionfish have found their niche, formed reproductive populations and are now established," they conclude.

That suggests it is time for authorities to step up to nip the invasion in the bud. Lionfish are fairly easy to collect and remove, and fisherman can be trained to perform the task. They'll have an additional incentive: lionfish can make for a tasty delicacy, as long as their venomous spines are removed.

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