Lionfish (Pterois miles), a generalist and voracious mesopredator native of the Indian Ocean, is rapidly spreading in the Mediterranean Sea, demonstrating the fastest invasion ever recorded in the region. Seawater warming, as effect of global climate change, is projected to offer increasingly favourable habitat for lionfish diffusion that could threaten almost the entire Mediterranean Sea by the end of this century. Lionfish invasion heavily affects the marine ecosystem and biodiversity, causing the decline of local species and biodiversity. It can also reduce commercial fish species, with potential disruption of fisheries, while their venomous features can pose a health threat and decrease the attractiveness of tourism destinations and diving sites.
The EU-funded RELIONMED-LIFE project aims to make Cyprus, due to its geographical position, the ‘first line of defence’ against the invasion of the lionfish in the Mediterranean. With the active involvement of the general public and local stakeholders, the project team, coordinated by the University of Cyprus, tested the effectiveness of several actions to control lionfish diffusion in Cypriot Natura 2000 sites, Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and diving sites (wrecks and artificial reefs). The implemented actions included: the analyses of lionfish biology and distribution patterns; the formulation of a risk assessment analysis of lionfish to include this species in the list of Invasive Alien Species of Union concern (the Union list -EU Regulation 1143/2014); the development of an early detection system for lionfish with an online dedicated portal and a phone application; the training of SCUBA and free divers and the implementation of targeted removal events including competitions; the training and motivation of fishers; the promotion of new niche markets for lionfish commercialisation; and the development of a regional management plan.
Though removal actions can be very effective, the reproduction and recolonization rate of lionfish are very rapid, calling for frequent actions, more coordinated effort and legislative regulation changes to cull its diffusion in the long term in Cyprus and across the Mediterranean Sea. The new opportunities for local businesses explored during the project that involved restaurants (with innovative menus) and jewel makers (by using discarded non-venomous fins), revealed strong interest. They can act as an economic incentive for lionfish catches. Major social benefits are produced by the project since it acts as an educational platform for better knowledge and management of invasive species in the marine environment, allows for active participation, promotes public collaboration in the scientific research, raises awareness, encourages behavioural changes, and develops social capital able to tackle other possible environmental issues.