Apocalypse Animals and the Year of Plagues in the Middle East

Middle East USA World

Rabat – Stories of Qur’anic-scale locust plagues around some of the world’s holiest sites hit the news in past months. Swarms continue to threaten nations’ food security across the Arabian Peninsula. 

Cyclones near the Yemen-Oman border in 2018 brought rainfalls that incubated a hardy crop of locusts. The, locusts, which can travel up to 150 kilometers per day, then went after crops.

Regional efforts, coordinated in part by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), used wide-scale pesticide spraying to protect agriculture from the swarms. While Jordan was able to launch its air force against the plagues, the people of Yemen employed a more traditional technique.

“Instead of them eating our vegetables, now we eat locusts with rice and our vegetables are fine,” a farmer told Middle East Eye. “Locusts swept the entire Arab region, but when they arrived in Yemen, Yemenis eliminated them.”

Even armed with its protein-rich approach, Yemen faces the greatest locust-related food security threats in the region during coming months, according to an FAO Report from July 27. Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Sudan also face upcoming challenges.

But the region’s plagues are not all as visible as the locusts that swarmed Mecca. Some invaders are attacking from under water.

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Lionfish in Lebanon

“Plague-like proportions” of lionfish are invading the Mediterranean this year. The predatory species is wreaking havoc on Lebanon’s marine ecosystem. 

“It’s like genocide,” Lebanese fisherman Atallah Siblini told Reuters. The lionfish are wiping out a complex ecosystem that fishermen and coastal communities rely on. “Now it is like 30 to 50 of them in one place. They started to scare away the other fish including sea bass which we depend on and they eat everything.”

The predatory lionfish, also called pterois, devour other marine life and destroy coral reefs

The lionfish’s name goes beyond its colorful mane; this fish is an animal of prey. Lionfish are voracious predators, capable of consuming larger fish and even fellow lionfish. Their stomachs serve for feasts, expanding up to 30 times their standard size for a good meal.

Lionfish possess natural defense mechanisms worthy of the Arabian Peninsula. One female lionfish can lay up to 2 million eggs per year. As an invasive species, the growing populations have no known predators in the Mediterranean—other than humans. 

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Lionfish are healthy and delicious, and affected communities around the world have undertaken campaigns to increase lionfish consumption in an effort to curb populations. Indeed, humans must solve a problem that is anthropogenic in nature.

Lionfish first entered the Mediterranean after expansion of the Suez Canal. The first Mediterranean lionfish was cited in 1991, with a mass arrival in 2012.

Marine biologists also link the growing populations to climate change; the species thrive and reproduce well in warm waters. Rising ocean temperatures make the already-cozy Mediterranean an ideal environment for the glutton. 

Complementing increasing fish consumption and culls, a salt block in the Suez could help deter the fish migration into the Mediterranean. But the lionfish is not the Sea’s only fishy threat.

Jellyfish in Israel

Further along the coast, an invasion reaches Israel. 

Tens of millions of jellyfish are swarming along Israeli shorelines. Invertebrate “blooms” are an annual occurrence in these waters. Observation suggests a large increase in jellyfish numbers over the past few years, though data is unable to confirm.

The jelly masses literally clog up operations at desalination stations and power plants, mirroring similar occurrences worldwide. The plants use seawater to cool operations, and the jellyfish are backing up filtration systems by the ton. One coal-fired power plant in southern Israel had to shut down operations in July to remove thousands of jellyfish from its system.

The jelly invasion is killing other marine life, especially by starving out other fish. The predators consume massive amounts of plankton, eggs, and other small nutrition sources, cutting off the food supply for small fish and reverberating up the food chain. Even a short stay in these waters from the nomad species can have a lasting ecological impact.

The jellyfish of course pose risks to humans, who are, once again, at least partly culpable for their growing presence. According to scientists, warming sea temperatures, pollution, overfishing of predatory species, and expanding the Suez Canal have all contributed to the boom in blooms. 

Jellyfish tend to migrate to warm waters, such as the ever-warming Mediterranean, where they can easily reproduce. They require less oxygen for survival than most fish, which gives them a much higher tolerance for polluted waters. Coastline development and overfishing of predatorial finfish can also be blamed for the increasing presence, according to researchers at the University of Haifa. 

The Washington Post cited a study suggesting that jellyfish “use structures such as offshore oil platforms and wind farms as incubators.” When it comes to coastline development, the jellies do not discriminate renewables.

Alongside invasive species, plastics plague our oceans. Recent research shows that a jellyfish bloom may be just what is needed to filter small plastics from the world’s water.

People can eat locusts; people can eat lionfish; people can even turn jellyfish mucous into plastic filtration systems. But before all, people can heed a warning cry of climate change, which, directly or not, brought each of these plagues into being.

Read also: Portuguese Man o’ War Jellyfish Invade Morocco’s Atlantic Seashores
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