The European Union “Life”-funded project “RELIONMED-Life” aimed to make Cyprus the “first line of defence” against the invasion of the lionfish (Pterois miles) in the Mediterranean. The project’s team developed an early response removal system (the project’s “Removal Actions Teams (RATs)” which were made of trained, experienced, motivated, volunteer divers) to act against lionfish in Cyprus. The knowledge and experience gained by the project may be replicated by other countries of the Mediterranean to control lionfish expansion in their marine waters too.
Action C2 of the project (Development and demonstration of a removal response system), was greatly dependant on stakeholders’ (i.e., divers and fishermen) contribution. Stakeholders were informed about the issues caused by the presence of lionfish and were given possible solutions that could assist in minimising the negative effects of the bio-invasion. Furthermore, they were trained on how to safely remove lionfish using the removal toolkit that was created for this purpose, how to safely handle the fish after it is caught and were given first aid tips in case of an accident.
Many lionfish removals were organised and implemented throughout the RELIONMED-Life project to conduct surveys, to collect fish for the preparation of lionfish dishes in restaurants/culinary events and to create lionfish jewellery made with the soft lionfish fins, to as a result help manage the lionfish invasion in Cyprus marine waters and the Mediterranean Sea in general. Both lionfish products were suggested as ways in which the fish could be introduced in the appropriate market niches to help make such removals economically sustainable in the future.
Removals to date were either performed solely by the project’s partners or were, also, supported by the “RATs” which participated in monthly removals and/or in the project’s eight lionfish removal derbies. “RATs” executed more than 25 lionfish removals, which was the initial number of expeditions planned to be completed through the project’s C2 Action. The “RATs” were initiated in the spring of 2019 and carried out their performance until the 28th of November 2021, with lionfish removals having taken place in different locations around Cyprus (from the Akamas Peninsula to the Famagusta district). The derbies commenced on the 26th of May 2019 and were completed on the 7th of November 2021, with the majority having been held in the Cape Greco area of the Famagusta district. Two events were only for the scuba divers and another five derbies were open to both scuba and free divers “RATs” members. One of the derbies was held in Xylofagou and only free divers were allowed to participate.
The completion of the C2 action and any attempts made to manage the species would not have been possible without the “RATs”. They were willing to spare their free time to execute removals under different weather conditions and made sure to help the project in other actions as well by raising awareness through mouth-to-mouth, social and mass media and got involved in the introduction of lionfish products in the market to motivate the general public to purchase them to help the environment. Their worries on what will happen to the lionfish abundances and distribution during the after-life of the project were, also, brought up by them and discussed at the final derby with the CyBC journalist who covered the event which was then broadcasted on the Main Bulletin of the channel. The RELIONMED-Life team would like to greatly thank each and every one of the “RATs” volunteer divers for their support and for using their experience in diving and their knowledge of the lionfish invasion to help control lionfish populations around the island.
The fish removed by the project included both juveniles and adults of different sizes. A total of 5,600 lionfish were caught and removed from the Mediterranean Sea throughout the RELIONMED-Life project - of which 3,032 were removed by the “RATs” during monthly removals, while another 1,735 lionfish individuals were removed at the eight coordinated lionfish removal derbies.