Alien invasion

New, venomous fish penetrates Med, threatening local species

With no natural predators in the Mediterranean, the beautiful but voracious lionfish — one of 100 alien fish species off Israel’s western coast — are reproducing like wildfire

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

A lionfish seen at Shaab Angosh reef in the Red Sea. Alexander Vasenin/Wikipedia/CC BY-SA 3.0)
A lionfish seen at Shaab Angosh reef in the Red Sea. Alexander Vasenin/Wikipedia/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Move over jellyfish — there’s a new alien, venomous fish that has also entered the Mediterranean via the Suez Canal, and this one is a beauty.

With its conspicuous bands of red, cream or black, and its showy fins packed with venomous spines, the lionfish is kept in check by natural predators in its native habitat, the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean.

However, the penetration of Pterois miles into the Mediterranean, and its rapid expansion, has scientists worried that they will deplete native fish, deprive other marine predators of food, and hit the commercial fishing industry, largely because in the Mediterranean, they have no known enemies.

These stunning predators are voracious eaters and consume many different species of fish. They live for up to 15 years and reproduce rapidly, spawning every four days, throughout the year, and producing around two million jelly-like eggs annually, which are carried far and wide on the currents. It was probably as eggs that they were carried up the Suez Canal, initially missing Israel and going on to colonize the coasts of Cyprus and Turkey.

The first few sightings off the Mediterranean coast of Israel were in the 1990s, in the north of the country. The species has since spread southwards along the coast, with multiple sightings over the past two years, and a rapid rise in their numbers over the past six months, both close to the coast and far out to sea. This summer, they were spotted just a meter below sea level, right off the beach near Neve Yam, in the north of the country.

The Israel Nature and Parks Authority recently decided to issue permits for divers to kill lionfish and help reduce their numbers.

Dr. Ruti Yahel, Israel Nature and Parks Authority marine ecologist. (Screenshot Amir Weizman Aquazoom)

The INPA’s marine ecologist, Dr. Ruth Yahel, clarified recently that only licensed divers were permitted to kill (and not sell) lionfish and that hunting was forbidden in the Red Sea, as well as  in Mediterranean marine reserves, where INPA inspectors are responsible.

Lionfish are among around 100 alien fish species in the Mediterranean off the coast of Israel. Their sting is painful and there have even been instances of human death.

Lionfish entered the Atlantic Ocean around Florida in 1980s, apparently after having been removed from home aquariums, possibly because they had become too big.

They can now be found almost continuously from the northern Gulf of Mexico to North Carolina and have since spread south along the Atlantic coast into Central and South America and the Caribbean.

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