An EU-funded project has placed Cyprus on the frontline to deal with an invasion of marauding lionfish that have munched their way through the eastern Mediterranean in the past five years.
- Lionfish breed at an astonishing rate and have few natural enemies
- They can eat almost any marine creature, including those up to two-thirds their own body size
- An EU-sponsored project promotes the lionfish as food to control its rapidly expanding population
“Wanted, Dead or Fried,” says one poster featuring a lionfish at the Larnaca marina, where the motto for restraining these stunning but destructive creatures is: if you can’t beat them, eat them.
Scientists say warmer waters as a result of climate change and an enlargement of the Suez Canal have opened the floodgates to species normally native to the Indo-Pacific.
Like the cane toad of northern Australia, lionfish breed at an astonishing rate and have few natural enemies outside of their native regions.
“Four years ago you were lucky to see one, and everyone would take a picture, saying ‘wow, we see a lionfish’,” Larnaca boat skipper Christos Giovannis said.
“Now, if you dive, there are thousands.”
A danger to the entire oceans ecosystem
The lionfish’s brightly coloured stripes and flowing pectoral fins may look beautiful, but its dorsal fins pack a venomous punch.
Lionfish pose a significant danger to the ocean ecosystems they invade.
They will eat almost any marine creature, including those up to two-thirds their own body size, according to Lionfish.co, and can spawn up to 30,000 eggs every four days.
The EU-sponsored project aims to promote lionfish as a food, among other ways to control its rapidly expanding population, which is affecting other countries in the region, such as Lebanon.
“We hope that humans can become the enemy of the lionfish in the Mediterranean,” said Periklis Kleitou, a researcher at the University of Plymouth.
The university is engaged in the research project, known as RELIONMED, along with Cyprus’s fisheries department, the University of Cyprus and two local research centres.
Since early 2019, teams of divers have been conducting regular expeditions in Cypriot waters in a campaign to cull numbers.
Chefs have been drafted in to give public presentations offering tips on how to gut the fish — scissors and gloves are a must when handling the fins to avoid a nasty prick or rash — and suggest preparation options, such as deep frying or cooking them on the barbecue.
And it’s delicious, according to its fans.
“Lionfish can be prepared in many different ways. On the grill, fried … whichever way you want,” said local chef Stelios Georgiou.
“As long as you remove the spine, which contains the venom, you can serve it like a normal fish.”