Karpathos is a beautiful island, but has many faces, all pointing in different directions, and each one attractive – or otherwise – to different people. Pigadia is not to my taste, Lefkos, especially around the beach, was not built for people like me, but many people take great pleasure in it. It is the north of the island, the far north, around Olympos, and Avlona, and in the hidden places in between, that appeals to me. It is in the north where mountains drop into the sea, and the wind tears relentlessly through the gaps between them, and where the moon struggles to rise above the rugged ridges, desperately trying to break free from the pull of its harsh and barren beauty.

We spent our days walking, mostly down to remote empty beaches, to swim in crystal clear and refreshing water, and back up again as the sun was setting behind the formidable peaks, in search of food, and wine to anaesthetise our leg muscles. Later we returned to where we staying, in Olympos, overlooking the sea, waiting for the same reluctant moon to illuminate the cliffs and headlands before us, and reflect off the never still surface of the sea. Our balcony was hard to leave.

On our last full day we walked back down to our favourite beach, and finding ourselves alone again, swam blissfully in the waters. Unlike other beaches we had been to, there were fish here, but it was two in particular that caught our attention, and unlike any we had seen before. In fact they didn’t look like fish at all, more like red frills of a moving plant. They were not disturbed, or even bothered by our approach which made us suspicious. And suspicious we should have been, because these were lionfish, and poisonous, and deadly in more ways than one.

If you haven’t heard of lionfish (Pterois miles and Pterois volitans) before, don’t be too bothered, but if you live in the Mediterranean, especially the eastern part of it, then be prepared to hear a lot more about them soon. They don’t belong here, being native to the Indian Ocean from Indonesia all the way across to the Red Sea. They started arriving in 2016, and have been multiplying like hell since. And no surprise, since they are voracious feeders (and breeders) and have few known predators, and have been described as one of the most aggressively invasive species on the planet.

The Caribbean, the East and Gulf Coasts of the United States have all been under attack since the early – mid 1990s (an aquarium in Florida destroyed by Hurricane Andrew in 1992 is usually blamed, but one was found off Florida in 1985, so who knows?) and there are now reports of sightings in North Brazil, and all along the eastern coast of Central America. Their spread is a huge threat to coral reefs in the Caribbean and Florida systems, as they are very clever hunters. They can control their position in the water column without a need to keep moving (as indeed we witnessed) so other fish enter into their field of influence without fright. They blow jets of water to disorientate their prey as they approach them as well as making sure that they can be swallowed head first.

The venom, used for defensive purposes against predators, is nasty too. Systemic effects include extreme pain, nausea and vomiting, fever, breathing difficulties, convulsions, dizziness, headaches, numbness, paresthesia, heartburn, diarrhea, and sweating and in rarer cases temporary paralysis of the limbs, heart failure and even death. Fatalities are common in very young children, the elderly, those with a weak immune system. They are altogether very nasty pieces of work. Worse than COVID in fact.

What can be done about them? They can live (depending on temperatures) down to 120m depths, and in some cases down to 300 metres. There are traps that have been designed to capture the lionfish in deeper waters without harming native species. Spearfishing by divers also seems to be an efficient – and I suppose quite a fun – way to control shallower populations. In Cuba a diver tried to train sharks to get a taste for lionfish and then seek them out for prey, but the results were – at best – hit and miss. One other way to control the population is to hunt them for human consumption. Once you get rid of the poisonous fins apparently the taste is buttery and tender. I’d like to give it ago, if only to get rid of the little buggers.

All this we discovered on the beach via our smartphones, and it set me thinking of solutions, because of course SOMETHING MUST BE DONE! But like most resolutions made and ideas conceived on holiday, they evaporate in the heat of Athens on our return, and are forgotten as they are replaced by the other more immediate worries of daily life.

But I was in fact deeply saddened by the sightings of the two lionfish off Karpathos, because I suspect I know why they are now colonising the eastern part of the Mediterranean and I feel responsible. On balance, I think ballast water transfer of these fish would be unlikely, mainly because if was the case it would have happened a lot sooner. Even so, I now see the point of ballast water treatment systems, and will stop complaining about them from now on.

It is the widening of the Suez Canal in 2015 to allow two way traffic that I suspect is the reason for the invasion of the fish from the south, especially because the first reported sightings of lionfish were in Malta and Cyprus shortly after. The fact that WHO IS TO BLAME? Well the world is, I suppose. Trade, political pride in Egypt, more traffic. Not shipping – we only react to the conditions created for us. But what goes through the Suez Canal? Well ships of course. So therefore we must bear some responsibility for a changing environment, especially when it is our – and by this I mean the Greek – marine environment that is being threatened.

And if you don’t agree with me, then ok, but just remember the Spanish proverb:

“God says: Take what you like. And pay for it.”

Here is a potential solution, and maybe HELMEPA can get in on the act:

–         Put a bounty of 10 euros on every lionfish caught in Greek waters by spearfishers or other hunters

–         Train fishmongers and other food professionals to clean and fillet them

–         Train chefs to cook them (apparently very good for sashimi and ceviche)

–         For those not used for consumption, process them into fish feed that can be packed into biodegradable bags and sacks, that can be thrown back into the sea in the places that need it to encourage the growth of existing native fish stocks

OK, I’m not a scientist, and there are probably many excellent reasons not to do what I am suggesting. But what were we thinking if we thought that the digging of canals from one sea to another wouldn’t upset the balance of what is effectively a closed and delicate sea? We in shipping bear a particular responsibility because we make our living from it, and have, or should have, a greater awareness of it. Why let the NGOs have all the fun, and the moral superiority?

Lying on a beach thinking these thoughts, and reflecting on them further after my return last Sunday, I think that my holiday has created a shift in my thinking on the environment. If digging a canal can threaten the biodiversity of the Mediterranean, damaged already as it is, then how much more do we threaten our world simply by moving through it? I am becoming, I suspect, a reluctant, sceptical, environmentalist.

The reason for this change was not just seeing the lionfish, but seeing Karpathos, and talking to the people who live there. They have been acutely aware of the environment all their lives, and for generations, in as much that any change in their local environment – seasonal, political, economical, meteorological, or simply scarce resources, a lack of food and opportunity for work – caused changes in their population, through emigration. They have gone and come back again, and Karpathos continues to change, for better and for worse, in this ebb and flow of people and money. Karpathos is beautiful for sure, but it is a hard, wild, austere beauty, taking everything – wind, rain, blood, toil, sweat – and giving very little back. Nature is implacable there.

The arrival of the lionfish off the coasts of Karpathos reminded me that trade – and shipping – is not inevitable, and that the side effects of economic growth, and even the growth of civilisation, can be as harmful as the benefits, in troubling and sinister ways. After all, mankind is the most invasive and destructive species on the planet. The only redeeming factor – or curse – is that we are equipped with a brain that can recognise the problems, and think about solutions to correct our mistakes. And then leave it for someone else to deal with.

Simon Ward