I mention in an earlier post that 130,000 years of human civilization in the Eastern Mediterranean might be a factor in explaining why I have seen so few fish underwater during my first month of exploring this coastline in Flying Fish.
In fact, the species loss here has been exacerbated in only the past decade and a single predatory fish may bear some of the responsibility. The first lionfish in the Mediterranean was officially reported in 2012. Other divers have seen them even earlier. Still, these fish originating from the Indian Ocean are newcomers to the neighborhood. Now biologists fear the population of this predator with virtually no natural enemies may be out of control in the Mediterranean as it is elsewhere in the world.
Marine biologists with the Cypriot Enalia Physis Environmental Research Centre say lionfish first appeared in the waters off Cyprus in 2012. Since then the number of lionfish has exponentially increased not only in Cyprus but now also in Turkey and around some of the southern Greek islands. “Wherever you dive you can now see the lionfish in masses,” reported Louis Hadjioannou, research director at Enalia.
The Mediterranean invasion of lionfish resembles that of the western Atlantic Ocean. Lionfish were first recorded off the coast of Florida in 1994, but only 20 years later it was estimated that there were up to 1,000 lionfish per acre of coastline. A female lionfish can produce two million eggs a year. Marine biologists say they could be reducing Atlantic reef species diversity by up to 80%.
The lionfish’s “exponential rise” in the Eastern Mediterranean was facilitated by the widening of the Suez Canal—completed in 2014—and warming regional water temperatures, according to Jason Hall-Spencer, a marine biology professor at Britain’s University of Plymouth. The cooler waters of the western Mediterranean, he reported, have largely been spared of lionfish for the moment.
Culling lionfish for food has helped reduce their numbers in other parts of the world. I have yet to see a lionfish in a Turkish fish market but stranger things make their way to the dinner table here–Koc Yumurtasi (ram’s testicles), for example. I look forward one day soon to preparing whole fried lionfish to my new Turkish friends.
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