Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 July 2019

A lionfish invasion is changing Lebanon’s seas

Why people living near the Mediterranean should start eating more of the exotic marine creatures

Lionfish, once a rarity in the Mediterranean, are now flourishing – and their presence is harming the ecosystem. Fabio Giungarelli
Lionfish, once a rarity in the Mediterranean, are now flourishing – and their presence is harming the ecosystem. Fabio Giungarelli

Lebanese fisherman Hassan Younes has sailed in the same waters off his coastal home town for three decades – but this year has been unlike any other.

Gone are the days when he used to catch an abundant haul of red lobster, sea urchin and red mullet. Now he counts himself lucky if he finds a sea bass – as native species disappear and invasive lionfish take their place.

The flamboyant fish, sometimes kept as pets because of their striking appearance, are native to the Red Sea and Indo-Pacific regions.

Predatory and venomous, they eat crustaceans, smaller fish and sometimes each other.

Environmentalists and marine biologists say warming waters caused by climate change, plus the 2015 deepening of the Suez Canal, have compelled the species to make the Mediterranean its home.

The rapid expansion of the lionfish is also being felt more widely, threatening coral reefs and fish stocks.

Their populations have swelled dramatically in the past 15 years, said the United States’ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, partly as a result of people releasing unwanted fish from home aquariums. They are harming native coral reefs in the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean.

“This sea is not the sea we grew up with,” Mr Younes said on a recent morning out on his boat.

“Many times, we go out to sea and come back empty-handed. We don’t even make enough to cover the price of diesel.”

The fish, with venomous wing-like fins and spines, was first sighted in the Mediterranean in 1991, then not again until 2012, off the coast of southern Lebanon. Since 2015, it has spread steadily across the region, said marine biologist Jason Hall-Spencer.

“They scare away the other fish”

Fisherman Atallah Siblini, who specialises in spear-hunting, said he started seeing the fish three years ago, but spottings were rare.

“Now it is like 30 to 50 of them in one place. They started to scare away the other fish including sea bass, which we depend on and they eat everything,” Mr Siblini said.

“It is like genocide.”

Environmentalists in Lebanon say the livelihoods of the fishermen and the survival of the marine ecosystem maybe depend on people eating lion fish.

The spread of the fish has been especially hard on Lebanon’s marine ecosystem already weakened by decades of overfishing, pollution and urbanisation.

“It eats a lot and breeds all year long so it is very easy for it to disturb the ecological balance,” said Jina Talj, an environmentalist.

“But luckily for us, it is also one of the tastiest types of fish,” said Ms Talj, who runs a campaign to encourage people to eat lionfish, which tastes like sea bass. So far, it is mainly the fishermen who have heeded the call but she hopes her campaign will help.

Her NGO, Diaries of the Ocean, has government recognition but receives no funding and relies on volunteers.

“The biggest problem we face is lack of knowledge among the public about the sea. So how can we save it if we don’t know what we have?” she said.

The invasive species spawns every four days and can lay up to two million eggs every year capable of surviving ocean drifts.

Mr Hall-Spencer says the spread this year has been in “plague-like proportions” across the Eastern Mediterranean including Greece, Turkey, Israel and Cyprus, which has just launched a cull.

To curb the problem in the long term, he would like to see the construction of a saltwater lock in the Suez Canal – an area of very salty water that would stop species moving from one sea to the other.

But until then, he said, the best thing to do is to catch the lionfish “and also celebrate the fact that they are good to eat.”

Updated: July 10, 2019 11:46 AM

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