Popular with visitors, lionfish a problem

HOMESTEAD, Fla. — As it turns out, one of Biscayne National Park’s main attractions today, is also one of its biggest problems.

The park, which is 95 percent water, was initially set aside to preserve the natural and cultural resources that lie beneath the ocean. Within that responsibility, Biscayne National Park also stands to protect a wide variety of threatened and endangered marine life and other native species that inhabit the area, including 609 different species of fish.

Click on the video at right to view a video slideshow about lionfish in Biscayne National Park prepared by writer Karla Durango.

According to Park Ranger Gary Bremen, however, one particular fish known as the lionfish, is “a voracious predator” non-native to the area, that has quickly become the center of attention for staff and visitors alike, as it is experiencing a population explosion and conquering the surrounding waters by eating many of the fish that reside within the park.

Lionfish, though they are very beautiful and appear to be elegant and graceful as their stripped quill-like fins glide through the water like drops of ink spreading through a wet surface, are in fact highly venomous and destructive creatures.

Studies of their stomachs, Bremen said, have in fact revealed that lionfish are capable of consuming prey more than half their size.

“They eat just about everything they come in contact with and are decimating our native fish populations,” Bremen said. “Being venomous, we don’t have anything here that can eat them except for one documented case of the Goliath Grouper.”

“The Lionfish Cookbook” sits atop the front desk of the Dante Fascell Visitor Center in Biscayne National Park (Photo by Karla Durango). lionfish1

Though experts are not quite certain how lionfish, a species native to the Indo-Pacific and the Red Sea, have arrived in the waters of the Atlantic, the surviving theory is that their invasion is a man-made problem.

The theory holds that these creatures were first introduced to North America through the aquarium trade and later, as a result of pure human carelessness, were dropped into the ocean free to reproduce to an invasive range.

“When people realize these fish have eaten all the other fish in their aquariums and that they are too big to keep, they take them out and let them go, thinking they will be fine,” Bremen noted.

Indeed they are fine, as they are quickly taking over the habitats of other species.

lionfish2 A close-up shot of the Lionfish (Photo courtesy of the National Park Service).

As Bremen’s colleague Christy Thibodeau said, these fish are now found half way around the world from where they are supposed to be and are spawning all the way from New England to South America, throughout the Caribbean and to Bermuda in the Atlantic and to the Gulf of Mexico.

Concerned about their potential to wipe out native fish species, however, the park has implemented its own management plan to try and control the situation locally.

According to the National Park Service website, the Resource Management Division of Biscayne National Park, is utilizing the services of employees to “respond to visitor reports, assess lionfish distribution, conduct gut content analysis, and facilitate routine monitoring and removal.”

Among some of the programs that have been launched to remove these fish from the park’s waters all together, is The Lionfish Internship Program, which sends certified divers out to shoot and net lionfish.

Through these efforts, Bremen said, they have been able to remove nearly 1,000 lionfish from the water.

“To control the problem is really, really hard, however,” Bremen stated, speculating that it might be an insurmountable problem at this point. He added that research has recently learned that these fish are now spawning just outside of the park at about 150 feet below the surface, a depth that is beyond the range of most divers.

Because of this new piece of information, a reasonable solution no longer involves trying to wipe them out completely, but rather trying to control their numbers to control the quantity of essential habitats that will be displaced.

According to Bremen, the park sponsors educational programs for high school students, where the kids perform stomach content analyses and learn about fish ecology, anatomy and identification and about the whole picture of exotic species and the problems they cause. In turn, these programs are designed to help experts figure out what the fish are eating, in order to figure out how to better control them.

At right, Park service interns have managed to remove more than 900 lionfish from the waters of Biscayne National Park (Photo courtesy of the National Park Service). Below, lionfish inside the aquarium at the Dante Fascell Visitor Center (Photo by Karla Durango). lionfish3

With that, Biscayne National Park has also taken to encouraging people to fish, eat and ask for lionfish at restaurants.

“You don’t need a license to catch these fish and can take as many as you want through any method that you want; there are no laws or restrictions,” Bremen mentioned. “They are really good to eat and you can help be an extension of the park and be an educator.”

According to Thibodeau, lionfish meat has a flavor comparable to hogfish or snapper and can be very delicious if prepared properly.

As Bremen also indicated, once the venomous fins are cut off, something that can be done with a simple pair of scissors, the fish is completely safe to eat.

Lionfish have no known predator in the Atlantic and encouraging humans to be such a predator is an educational and proactive way to control their negative impact on our ecosystem, Bremen noted.

lionfish4Standing tall on the front desk of Biscayne National Park’s visitor center, is “The Lionfish Cookbook,” which contains a long list of innovative recipes published by The Reef Environmental Education Foundation. It is an attempt to encourage people to be part of the solution.

As the book states, “problems create opportunities for solutions and, in this case, the solution has a culinary twist.”

Some of the recipes listed include: Lionfish Carpaccio, Beer Battered Lionfish, Lionfish Cakes, Lionfish Tacos and even Lionfish Nachos, among many others.

Understandably however, the common first response among people is to have pity for these fish.

“It is not their fault, it is their nature,” Bremen said.

But, the fact of the matter is, lionfish are infesting an ecosystem that is not fully equipped to fight back.

“Either we find a way to control this or we risk loosing native populations that are inherent to the survival of our ecosystem,” said Manuela Pelaez, a recent graduate of the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science at the University of Miami, who has done extensive research on habitat conservation for marine life.

As the cookbook also proclaims, “many native seafood species are under immense fishing pressure and in need of protection, lionfish are tasty, nutritious and an environmentally conscious seafood choice.”

“There is simply no greener fish to eat.”


If You Go

Address: 9700 SW 328 St.,
 Homestead, Fla. 33033

Phone: 305-230-7275

Hours: The water portion of Biscayne National Park is open 24 hours, seven days a week. Convoy Point, the park’s headquarters, is also open seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. The Dante Fascell Visitor Center, likewise, is open daily from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.


If You Come Across a Lionfish:

1. If you see or catch a lionfish in Biscayne National Park, please call Vanessa McDonough at 305-230-1144 ext. 3112 or e-mail her at

2. If you observe a lionfish in Biscayne National Park please record and report the following data: The date and time of sighting, the location of sighting, preferably through the GPS coordinates, the depth of sighting, their habitat, the number of lionfish seen, the size of them and their behavior. Visitors are asked to document as much information about the sighting as you can and take pictures if possible.

3. Please know that, if you come across a lionfish, you should avoid touching the venomous fins. All of their spines are venomous and stings can cause intense pain, swelling, headache, nausea, paralysis and convulsions. The National Park Service website advices that if stung, immerse your wound in hot water and seek medical attention as soon as possible.


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