Florida's aquatic problem with invasive species

01/15/10 Matthew Cimitile
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A broad coalition of groups from the Association of Fish and Wildlife agencies to Dow Agro-sciences is hosting a weeklong summit on invasive species in Washington D.C. The summit is part of the National Invasive Species Awareness Week that is hoping to bring the problem of invasives to the forefront. Aquatic invasives are disrupting Florida waters.

The lionfish is a spiny, venomous fish of contrasting red and white stripes that can grow to over a foot long. Native to the Indian and Pacific Oceans, their attractive colors, protruding spines along the back and fins that cloak around the neck like a lion’s mane make them a prize possession for aquarium owners and tropical fish farmers. But the desirability of this and other non-native fishes from around the world has resulted in an explosion of invasive fish in Florida waters.

Amy Benson, a fishery biologist at the U.S. Geological Survey in Gainesville, says the main culprit for the hefty number of invasives is pet releases.

“I would have to say mostly through the aquaculture industry as far as the number of species and through the aquarium trade there is a lot of it unfortunately. They are brought in through the aquarium trade and the owners release them so the owners are more or less the culprit then the people who raise them.”

Curator of exhibits at the Pier Aquarium in St. Petersburg, Butch Ringelspaugh, says the lionfish is a prime example of how most non-natives arrive in Florida through the aquarium trade where they are bought and eventually released as they grow in size.

“They usually are sold in stores at a small size and they look really cool; everybody loves the lion fish. They bring them into their home aquarium and once they grow quite large they start eating all their other fish. And they can’t handle buying more and more fish just to feed their lion fish and they decide that they are going to just let him go.”

Non-native aquatic organisms like the armored catfish of South America, the bullseye snakehead of Asia and the spotted tilapia of Africa are spreading in range and escalating the risk of disrupting Florida marine ecosystems. Though such organisms are small in stature, they can create great ecological and economic destruction. Invasive fish can eliminate native species, push out important recreational fisheries by taking over territory and eating juvenile snook and red drum and cause millions of dollars in damages every year.

According to the USGS Nonindigenous Aquatic Species Program and Benson, Florida is second only to California in the number of non-native fish species reported in its waters.

“The number of freshwater species that have been introduced in Florida is about 117 or so, those are all foreign species. So there are about 117 foreign species that have been introduced to Florida and out of those 117 roughly 50 or so have been established.”

But, Benson added, it is hard to count the exact number of all non-native fish – both fresh and salt water - inhabiting Florida.

Once released, certain species survive and thrive in their new environment, reproducing quickly and changing the delicate balances of ecosystems. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission they out-compete or prey on native species, infect fish with parasites and diseases and in the case of electrical eels, piranhas, freshwater stingrays and lionfish can directly harm humans.

State agencies and programs exhaust money and resources to combat the rising threat of aquatic invasives, such as by legally introducing exotic fish as biological controls to preventing the escapes in the first place through public education and coordination. Ringelspaugh says many experts agree that prevention is most important as once a species escapes and reproduces in Florida waters it is nearly impossible to stop the spread and manage.

“Once they can get their foot in the door in a non-native environment it is very difficult to eradicate them if that’s even possible. So if we can educate the public on what species are acceptable for small home aquariums then they will stop buying the species that are not acceptable and once they stop buying those species then the stores will stop buying those species so those animals will not be collected from the wild anymore and we will cut that problem right from the bottom.”

Benson stressed that this is truly a problem in which the public must be involved with to help reduce future impacts.

“The public needs to be on board with this 100 percent as far as releasing things. So I think if we get the public on board and kind of show them that there are impacts when you release something and people are not doing the animals any favors by releasing it to either the animal or to the environment, the native species. So it is definitely a public issue that the public has to be on board with to solve this problem.”

National Invasive Species Awareness Week

U.S. Geological Survey Nonindigenous Aquatic Species Program, Florida

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