Long, lazy days at the beach in Italy may never be the same again – for the first time, a highly venomous lionfish has been spotted off the country’s coast.
Their multi-coloured frills and striped bodies make them one of the most flamboyant creatures in the ocean, but they are also among the most venomous. Their sharp spines are coated in a poisonous mucus that is harmful to humans as well as to other fish.
Native to the tropical waters of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, they have steadily spread to other parts of the world, having been accidentally or deliberately introduced.
Now a 12cm-long specimen has been sighted in the Venicari marine reserve in the south-east of Sicily. The fish, described by experts as “venomous pests”, were already present in the eastern Mediterranean but this is the first time one has been spotted in Italian waters.
The discovery was made by marine biologists from Italy’s Institute for Environmental Protection and Research, the Italian National Research Council and the American University of Beirut.
“This is the first record of this notorious invasive species in Italian waters. Given its large size, conspicuous appearance, and venomous spines, it is critical to involve informed citizen scientists in tracking the spread of this species and to develop means to manage or adapt to its presence in the Mediterranean Basin,” the researchers wrote in a paper published in BioInvasions Records, a scientific journal.
Describing the lionfish as “conspicuous and disruptive predators once introduced outside of their native range”, the biologists said the species was “an unwanted new guest” in Italian waters. The species has spread rapidly in the Mediterranean in the last 20 years. In the early 1990s, it was limited to the coast of Israel, but then moved north to Lebanon and across to Cyprus. In 2015 the species was spotted off the coast of Tunisia – not far from southern Sicily.
“The lionfish observed at Vendicari represented the first known occurrence of this species in Italian waters, and its observation confirms a trend of rapid expansion through the Mediterranean Sea,” the experts wrote. Lionfish have already spread throughout the Caribbean and along the coast of Florida, where they have had a devastating effect on native species.
They reproduce quickly and have a voracious appetite, twin attributes which lead to the decimation of native reef species. “Invasive lionfish can reach very high population densities and can greatly alter ecosystem structure and function, mainly through predation on small fishes,” the scientists said.
Now there are fears of an “incipient lionfish invasion” in the Mediterranean, they warned. “There is an urgent need to take action and to promote control measures.” In Florida, fishermen and divers are actively encouraged to hunt and kill lionfish and similar measures could be adopted in Europe.
Lionfish stings are rarely fatal to humans, but they are very painful. If a spine punctures a person’s flesh, neurotoxic venom is pumped into the wound. That can cause extreme pain, nausea, vomiting and allergic reactions. The pain can last from a few hours to a few days, depending on the individual. “It won’t kill you, but it’ll make you wish you were dead,” a dive instructor in Florida told National Geographic.
The recommended treatment is to immerse the affected area of the body into hot water for at least half an hour. The spines remain dangerous even after the fish are dead, for up to two days.
The good news for holidaymakers heading to Sicily this summer is that lionfish use their poisonous spines as a defence, rather than as an attack mechanism. Swimmers, snorkelers and divers need only keep a safe distance from the species to reduce the risk of being stung.