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European Climate, Infrastructure and Environment Executive Agency
Newsletter3 August 2020Executive Agency for Small and Medium-sized Enterprises

Preventing a lionfish invasion in the Mediterranean

The ornate lionfish is one of the world’s most venomous marine creatures.

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All rights reserved. Licenced to the European Union under conditions

The ornate lionfish is one of the world’s most venomous marine creatures. It is also a skilled hunter that can destroy native fish populations and severely impact ecosystems. The team at RELIONMED-LIFE is determined to stop this invasive predator’s advance into the Mediterranean.

Lionfish first came to the world’s attention in the 1980s when they entered the western Atlantic Ocean after being released by an aquarium. What followed was one of the biggest marine invasions ever with the numbers of native fish species in certain locations reduced by 95%.

The EU wants to limit the presence of such invasive alien species on our land in our waters. To this end, its 2030 Biodiversity strategy aims to reduce the threat from invasive alien species by 50%.

The partners in RELIONMED-LIFE, meanwhile, have come with some innovative ways of averting a repeat of what happened in the western Atlantic Ocean. We spoke with Demetris Kletou, who is the project’s scientific coordinator, to find out more.

How did RELIONMED-LIFE start?

It all began in 2013 when we started seeing lionfish off the coast of Cyprus. We knew that we needed to act quickly to stop this fish in its tracks. We put together a team of experts from specialist marine research institutes, universities, and an NGO to deal with the onslaught.

Why are lionfish so dangerous?

Lionfish eat a large range of species and their stomachs can expand up to 30 times their normal size when feeding. And as lionfish are relatively new to the Mediterranean, native fish don’t recognise them as predators, making them an easy target. In addition, lionfish themselves have few natural predators, so their populations can multiply quickly.

These invasive species cause big declines in local fish populations, compete with native organisms for limited resources, reduce biodiversity, and alter habitats.

On top of this, their venomous spines can harm fishers and swimmers.

What are you trying to achieve?

We want to be the first line of defence against the lionfish invasion in the Mediterranean. To do this, we have developed a mobile application and an online interactive platform so that people can report lionfish sightings across the Mediterranean region - this will give us an idea of numbers.  In addition, we have set up a team of qualified scuba divers who regularly remove lionfish from the water. We also want to reuse the discarded fish to help the local economy.

Tell us more about your team of scuba divers

We have a team of around 100 volunteer scuba divers, who are called Removal Action Teams or RATs for short. We regularly hold competitions where they try and catch as many lionfish as possible. At our fourth lionfish removal derby just two weeks ago, 32 scuba divers and free divers removed 367 lionfish.

We’ve been hearing about new uses for the caught lionfish. Can you tell us more?

Yes. Lionfish tastes really nice and it is highly nutritious! So, we have been promoting the fish to local restaurants and it’s proving popular with diners. There are even some lionfish recipes on our website.

We have also encouraged some of the creative locals to design jewellery which is made of lionfish spines and fins. The pieces are now on sale in shops and local markets.

All this means new jobs and additional income for the locals, while our marine ecosystems are being protected at the same time.

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All rights reserved. Licenced to the European Union under conditions

What impact do you think you’ve had already?

So far, we have organised 100 dives and have removed 3 000 lionfish. We have also held workshops and other events to raise awareness of what we are doing to other divers and fishers. The public is now more knowledgeable about the lionfish and its uses.

For the future, we will continue to try and raise the market value of discarded lionfish. We will also share our knowledge through training sessions with local authorities in other Mediterranean countries so that they can also help stop the invasion. Our ultimate goal is to be able to consistently protect our ecosystem from the lionfish and other invasive species.


Publication date
3 August 2020
Executive Agency for Small and Medium-sized Enterprises