Invasive Devil Firefish Are Infesting the Mediterranean Sea

The lionfish is carnivorous and can kill and eat a large number of local fish. It also endangers humans if they come into contact with its poisonous spike

זהרון הדור בים התיכון. פלישתו לאזור מדאיגה מכיוון שככל הנראה אין לו אויבים טבעיים בים התיכון
Shabi Rotman

A fish from the lionfish family that has spread into the Mediterranean Sea over the past few years is threatening the fish species endemic to Israel, Cyprus and other countries in the area, scientists say.

The lionfish, also known as the devil firefish, is carnivorous and poisonous, and can kill and eat a large number of native fish in the rocky areas of the Mediterranean Sea. It also endangers people: Its poisonous spikes cause pain, swelling, inflammation and blisters if they puncture the skin.

The invasive fish has been spotted along the length of Israel’s Mediterranean coast, particularly in rocky areas, generally several hundred meters away from the shore. It made its way from its home in the Red Sea into the Mediterranean via the Suez Canal. It was first spotted in the Mediterranean in 2012, and scientists have been tracking it there ever since. It is relatively common around Eilat’s coral reefs. Six years ago it was spotted near the Achziv nature reserve and within a year and a half, it was spotted in the Haifa bay area, as well as off beaches in central Israel. The fish were spotted about 30 meters below the water’s surface.

This summer, the first reports came of lionfish in shallow water only 1 meter deep off the Neve Yam beach. Parks Authority officials say the fish is also inhabiting deep water, and has been spotted as deep as 120 meters below sea level.

The lionfish’s spikes are an effective defense against predators, which worries scientists, who say that it has no natural enemies in our area. “This population can reproduce much more quickly than local predators, such as groupers,” Dr. Shevy Rothman of the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History at Tel Aviv University wrote in the authority’s periodical. This can negatively affect local fish populations, both because the lionfish are predators and also because they are competing with them for food resources.

דגי זהרון באקווריום ישראל בירושלים, ב-2018. פלשו לים התיכון דרך תעלת סואץ ממקום תפוצתם הטבעי
Olivier Fitoussi

The lionfish is likely here to stay, she wrote. However, the population can be controlled somewhat by targeted fishing carried out by divers. Over the past few years, the authorities have been giving out permits for divers to fish for lionfish.

Cypriot authorities are also attempting to control lionfish populations. Marine biology professor Jason Hall-Spencer of Britain’s Plymouth University, who is working in partnership with the Cypriot authorities, told the Guardian that this is the most damaging kind of invasive fish, and that while it can’t be entirely removed from the Mediterranean, ecologically important areas can still be protected by systematic dilution of lionfish populations.