One, two, three. Go! Georges Assaf leans backward and slides off one end of the boat. The compressed air tanks are the first to hit the water, and the harpoon is the last thing to disappear beneath the blue surface. Forty minutes later, the harpoon emerges again, and behind it comes Georges with a satisfied smile. He holds in his hand the day's trophy: a plastic barrel filled with red fish. A handful of mesmerizing creatures, with their backs covered in poisonous spiky crests and fins that fan out gracefully underwater. They are lionfish, or Pterois Miles. And they shouldn't be here, in Lebanese waters. They shouldn't be in the Mediterranean.
It has been more than a decade since they arrived from the Red Sea, through the Suez Canal, and since then, they have been depleting the Eastern Mediterranean of its native species and threatening the livelihoods of local fishermen. It's the fastest fish invasion ever recorded in this sea.
The increasingly warm waters have made the lionfish a vacuum cleaner of the marine ecosystem. The voracious appetite of a single specimen can reduce the number of native species by up to 90% in just five weeks, especially because the Mediterranean lacks natural predators for them.
At least until now. Lebanese diver Georges is part of the first generation of lionfish hunters in the Mediterranean. "Not bad," he murmurs, back on the boat, as he examines the lifeless bodies of about twenty specimens at the bottom of the barrel. "They are small because we couldn't dive too deep, but there are quite a few." He is surrounded by a group of marine biologists from Diaries of the Ocean, the organization that created the first program in Lebanon to mitigate the impact of lionfish on the marine ecosystem. They work hand in hand with divers, fishermen, and restaurateurs to promote the hunting and consumption of this species. Back at the port, Agness Nohra, the project coordinator, watches as the barrel sways in the center of the boat and points to a solution. "If nobody eats the lionfish, we will have to do it ourselves..."
The problem of invasive species in the sea is difficult to solve: the ocean is the frontline of climate change and knows no borders.
"In the past, when tropical species entered, they encountered cold waters that prevented their advance. Now they encounter a warming Mediterranean that adapts to their needs," explains Joaquim Garrabou, a member of the CSIC at the Institute of Marine Sciences.
The global surface temperature of the Mediterranean has increased by 0.9 degrees since the 1990s, according to the European Environment Agency (EEA). And although there is no specific data for the eastern Mediterranean, it is known for being the warmest region.
Emili Hershey, 73, is a fisherman from the port of Amchit, north of Beirut, and is also part of the first battalion of lionfish predators. "They eat everything, even the larvae of other species," he says as he points towards the sea. His calloused hand attests to a lifetime dedicated to the ocean, and a small scar at the base of his thumb confirms his battle against the invasive fish. A few days ago, he scratched himself with the lionfish's poisonous but not lethal spines while entangled in a net. "A little cortisone, and the inflammation goes down right away."
Hidden beneath a green military cap, he describes a nightmare. "We used to return to the port with octopuses, cuttlefish, groupers, and sea urchins. Now the nets are empty and damaged by lionfish and pufferfish," he laments. Since the pufferfish, another invasive species, is not edible, there is still no solution to mitigate its impact. "Honestly, I don't see a future for the new generations of fishermen," he says.
The lionfish's advance in Lebanon has been particularly dramatic because this species lives in small caves among the rocks. "Since 80% of the Lebanese coast is rocky, its expansion is particularly virulent; it's everywhere," explains Jina Talj, a marine biologist and founder of the Diaries of the Ocean organization.
The absence of natural lionfish predators in Lebanese waters, such as sharks, large groupers, or eels, has paved the way for its spread. And its dizzying rate of reproduction, spawning every two or three days, has accelerated its expansion even further.
Although its presence was documented sporadically in different areas of the Mediterranean in the 1990s, it wasn't until 2012 that the situation got out of control. It started in the southern Lebanese coast and then reached Cyprus. By 2014, it had settled in the east and expanded its distribution to the north of Turkey. By 2016, it had already entered the Aegean Sea and the Egyptian coast. In 2020, it was sighted in northern Greece, and the following year in the Adriatic, Sicily, Tunisia, and Algeria. Its westward advance is unstoppable.
When a new species arrives, it forces the rest to feed on different species or to adapt to new conditions. "It's a complete alteration of the food chains," says Garrabou. With increasingly warm waters and the Suez Canal wide open, the only alternative is to adapt to the changing marine reality.
Since the lionfish arrived, on the Turkish coast, they hurried to implement palliative measures such as promoting contests for its capture or encouraging its consumption. For biologist Aylin Ulman, based in Turkey and an advisor to the United Nations Program for Invasive Species in the Mediterranean, "the work of the scientific community has been key to convincing the Turkish government to allow spearfishing for lionfish."
Mediterranean countries have an advantage in their fight against this species. It's not the first time humanity has faced this problem. Since the 1990s, in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, they have been working to save the reef ecosystem from the threat of lionfish. Their experience has allowed the states in the Mediterranean basin to approach the problem with more tools. First spotted on the Florida coast in 1985, experts speculate that lionfish from domestic aquariums were released for almost three decades.
After more than 30 years of trying various strategies, such as training natural predators or relying too heavily on aid funds, creating a market for human consumption became the best way to keep the population in check. Currently, the capture and commercialization of lionfish reach 20,000 kilograms each year in the northeastern Gulf of Mexico. In Lebanon, they are trying to implement this strategy. And the fishing community in Amchit has reasons to be proud. "This has been the first port in the country to commercialize lionfish," says Marvon Isso, the port and fishing community manager. Sitting in a white plastic chair in front of the bay facilities, he paints an optimistic future.
"Since restaurants started offering lionfish on their menu a year and a half ago, the situation has improved a lot for fishermen."
"Although it won't be thanks to the government," he adds, "which hasn't lifted a finger to manage the crisis."
While Marvon and Hershey return to their work, Georges' boat docks at a small pier on the other side of the port. As soon as he steps onto the dock, he empties the barrel onto the asphalt, and several lionfish lie at his feet. With care, he takes one of them by the mouth and extends his arms to show it to the sea. From there, he precisely removes the spiky crest and fins. Then he places it in a plastic bag and prepares to process the second one. One by one, the lionfish are placed in the same plastic bag.
That's about twenty fewer specimens that will give a small respite to the 2,000 endemic species of the Mediterranean. "Between 25% and 30% of the species in this sea only live here; if they die, they will disappear from the entire biosphere," explains Garrabou.
In a sea shared by 22 countries, the efforts of Georges, Aylin, or Hershey to prevent an ecological catastrophe are generous. The efforts in Lebanon do an invisible favor to their neighboring countries. But the war is not won; it's only a matter of time before the lionfish reaches the Spanish coasts.
This article was produced with support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in La Vanguardia on 03 September 2023 in Spanish. It has been translated to English and lightly edited for length and clarity.
Banner image: Diver Georges Assaf catches a lionfish off the coast of Amchit, Lebanon, June 2023 / Credit: Jane Abou.