TIRANA, February 15
Know your fish
Highly venomous and poisonous invasive fish species have been seen off the coast of the Mediterranean and Albania over the last years. The presence of such species has been confirmed even in Italy, Greece, Montenegro, and other countries in the region. But, what are these types of fish, why it’s important to know them, and how are they dangerous to humans and marine ecosystems?
(Please, note that this article is not trying to demonize any marine creatures. It tries to raise awareness on climate change, environmental education, and more attention towards marine issues.)
The silver-cheeked toadfish in Albania
The Visitors Center in Radhima, Vlora area, brings attention to the silver-cheeked toadfish (Lagocephalus sceleratus) also known as Sennin-fugu in Japan. The name of this fish in Albanian is Peshku Gjyle Pikalosh. This extremely poisonous fish that belongs to the family Tetraodontidae also known as pufferfishes, has been spotted for the first time on the coasts of the Karaburun peninsula in 2019.
Radhima’s Visitors Center highlights that the fish can cause intoxication and even death if eaten. The fish contains Tetrodotoxin (TTX), a toxin that preserves its properties even after being cooked. The toxin causes paralysis of involuntary muscles that can further cause the victim to stop breathing or even induce heart failure. Symptoms of TTX intoxication include nausea and vomiting, headache, abdominal pain, and tingling over the entire body.
Moreover, the Visitors’ Center shares some tips on how to distinguish this fish (see the photo above). It has darker spots on its back. It has no scales. It has strong jaws and sharp teeth. It lives on rocky bottoms from shallow coasts to sea depths.
The Silver-cheeked Toadfish is a Lessepian migrant. This is the term used for all the migrant marine species that have reached the Mediterranean through the Suez Canal. Like most other species they are migrating because they are trying to survive the warming water temperatures. Besides the threat it possess to human health, this species is impacting fish stocks in the Mediterranean. According to the European Parliament, the population size of this fish has tripled since it first arrived in the Mediterranean (first spotted in Turkish waters in 2003).
In the meantime, it also causes material losses to fishermen as it damages nets with its sharp jaws. On the other hand, this results in more ghost nets, which pose a major threat to coral reefs and the natural habitat of fish and marine creatures.
Scientific research from 2019 highlights that the invasive Silver-cheeked Toadfish represents a serious ecological risk to Mediterranean biodiversity, fisheries resources, and a health risk to public health.
The species is common in the tropical waters of the Indian and Pacific oceans. This one and other fishes started making their way into the Mediterranean as the seawater became warmer and saltier due to human-induced global warming. According to the Guardian, there are over 70 tropical fish that are now present in the Mediterranean. Even though not all of them are poisonous or venomous, many pose threat to biodiversity.
Lionfish in Albania (Peshku Luan)
Photos published by Oazi Blue Diving Center in September and then again in October 2021 document the presence of the beautiful yet dangerous Lion Fish species in the Ionian Sea, Himara coast. Based on the information offered by the diving center this famous invader has been spotted on the Albanian coast since 2019.
The Lionfish has been present in the Mediterranean since 1991. It is a venomous species with 18 spines that can penetrate human skin. Don’t worry, incidents of humans being stung are infrequent and rarely fatal. However, the stung can cause a lot of pain and discomfort.
Biologists consider the Lionfish as one of the most aggressively invasive species on the planet. This species is causing serious damage to reef ecosystems and local fishing economies in the Mediterranean and elsewhere in the world.
What are the solutions to reduce the number of invasive fish?
The first question that comes to mind is: Who preys upon these invaders? In the case of the Silver-cheeked Toadfish, a study published on sciencedaily.com has documented only one native predator, the loggerhead turtle. Moreover, the list of native predators for juvenile toadfish includes dolphinfish and garfish. Interestingly, the study points out that cannibalism was also observed within the Silver-cheeked toadfish species.
Meanwhile, native predators of the Lionfish include the white grouper, the common octopus, the dusky grouper, as well as the Silver-cheeked Toadfish itself. Differently from the latter, the meat of Lionfish is considered a delicacy once the 18 venomous spines are removed. Its meat contains no venom and it’s safe to eat. They say it tastes like chicken, sea chicken. Hence, humans are part of the food chain.
While gastronomy might be a solution, more human-management measures are needed. In some countries like Cyprus, the removal of the Silver-cheeked Toadfish and the red Lionfish is incentivized by authorities.
Further on, researchers consider experimenting with other options to control their numbers. Possible solutions would include the use of the toadfish as fish food in the aquaculture industry. Other options consist of the extraction of its toxins for cosmetic and pharmaceutical uses.
In the case of the invasive Lionfish, solutions applied worldwide vary from the use of various apps to shark training. People from different sectors can get involved, divers, fishermen can hunt or report sightings using smartphone apps. In some parts of the words where this species has no native predators, divers are creating one by training sharks to eat Lionfish.
In the case of Albania, the damage could be reduced once proper surveys and research on non-native species and environmental sustainability are completed to avoid situations like the one with the blue crab. The invasive crab is wreaking havoc in Albania’s lagoons. Fishermen and business people have still not found a proper way to manage the presence of this invasive species.
For the moment, be careful if you spot one of these fishes while diving or snorkeling on the beautiful coast of Albania. If you want to know more about safe types of fish in Albania we suggest you this article: Types of Fish in Albania
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Photo Credit: Oazi Blu Diving Center