Highly venomous lionfish on the menu in Greece and Cyprus as conservationists tackle invasive species

Nick Squires
Lionfish may be beautiful but they are an aggressive invasive species in the Mediterranean and parts of the Atlantic and Caribbean  - Getty Images Contributor

A voracious, venomous species of fish that has invaded the Mediterranean from the Red Sea may be about to meet its match as conservationists urge people to start eating them.

The exotic-looking lionfish has taken advantage of the widening of the Suez Canal and warming waters, caused by global climate change, to colonise the sea off Greece, Cyprus, Israel, Turkey and Lebanon.

An aggressive species, it preys on native fish and can reproduce at an alarming rate.

Over-fishing in the Mediterranean means that there is an acute lack of bigger fish which might have been expected to prey on the lionfish.

But working on the principle that “if you can’t beat’em, eat’em,” environmental groups in Greece and Cyprus are encouraging divers to catch them and sell or give them to restaurants.

There is a hitch – the lionfish’s dorsal fins are highly venomous, but experts insist that fishermen and chefs, equipped with gloves and knives, can be trained to safely remove them.

Once the fins are dispensed with, there is no danger in eating lionfish meat, which is succulent and white.

A fisherman displays a lionfish after it was spear fished Credit: Alamy

It can be grilled, deep-fried, put in a burger or even served up as ceviche and sashimi.

“It’s very tasty and it’s easy to cook,” said Anni Mitropoulou, the head of the Cyclades Preservation Fund, which is hoping to educate fishermen, divers, chefs and tourists in the Greek islands to start viewing the species as edible.

“I’ve had it in a soup, grilled and as sushi and it was delicious. It’s a double pleasure because you know you’re doing something good for the environment.

“If we can create a demand, then it’s a win-win situation – we will remove from the sea a species that damages the environment, fishermen can boost their livelihoods and consumers get a delicious product.

“We need to stop lionfish before it’s too late,” Ms Mitropoulou told The Telegraph.

At an event held on the island of Santorini last month, two well-known Greek chefs were challenged to come up with lionfish dishes.

Lionfish seen here in the Red Sea Credit: Jan Wlodarczyk / Alamy Stock Photo

The Cyclades Preservation Fund is working on an e-book of lionfish recipes, in which the alien species will be matched with typically Greek ingredients.

In Cyprus, contests are organised in which divers compete to catch lionfish and scientists are raising the possibility of the species’ sharp spines being used to make jewellery.

“We’re exploring market solutions,” said Periklis Kleitou, a marine biology researcher at Plymouth University who is combating the scourge of lionfish in the sea around Cyprus.

“But we have to be careful – you don’t want people to start relying on the fish for their livelihoods. We want to over-exploit it. Education is the key.”

Lionfish can have a devastating impact on the marine environment.

In parts of the Caribbean, which they have also colonised, there has been a decline in biodiversity of up to 95 per cent.

“The species established itself in the Mediterranean in 2012 and is now reaching as far west as Italy. It is a very successful alien species. It reaches sexual maturity quickly, it has a tremendous reproductive rate and it has no natural enemies,” said Mr Kleitou, part of an EU-funded project that involves the fisheries department in Cyprus, a marine research laboratory and the University of Cyprus.

It is not just the lionfish that is in the sights of conservationists. More than 400 Indo-Pacific species have moved through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean.

Campaigners hope that many of them, such as the rabbit fish and the blue crab, will also end up on restaurant menus.

“These species are taking advantage of climate change and higher water temperatures,” said Mr Kleitou. “We want to make Cyprus an example for other countries in managing this problem.”