Celebrating the Non-Natives

Exotic fish provide outstanding angling action in Florida.

Peacock bass are the only nonnative fish with a bag and size limit. They were stocked by the state in 1984 and provide a multimillion-dollar economic benefit. They are native to the Amazon River basin. (Photo courtesy of Alan Zaremba)

Guest editorial by FWC’s Bob Wattendorf, with Vance Crain.

Florida is the Fishing Capital of the World because of its native fishes, but it also has a variety of exotic fishes anglers may pursue. An exotic fish is one that is not native to the area in which it is found. Typically, this is because people moved them from one location to another, either intentionally or accidentally, resulting in their illegal release.

To many ecologists, any organism that is introduced to a place it did not historically and naturally occur is a nuisance. However, when you look around Florida you will find many species that are associated with the Sunshine State but were not here 500 years ago when the Spanish first landed. In fact, Spaniards brought many familiar edibles from Europe, including oranges, horses and pigs, which are still here.

Jaguar guapote have an attractive black-and-white pattern. Native to Central and South America, they showed up in South Florida in 1992. (Photo courtesy of Alan Zaremba)

The first exotic fish species documented in Florida – the common carp – was stocked around 1877 by the U.S. Fish Commission. Carp came from Germany and were stocked as a food fish throughout the United States. Today in Florida, common carp are most abundant in the Panhandle and support a small but avid group of anglers and bow fishermen.

In addition to common carp, another 22 species of fish are established, meaning they have permanent populations, and 11 species have reproduced in Florida’s fresh waters. Most successful intruders came from tropical or subtropical climates. Typical sources have been the aquarium trade or individual pet-fish owners, and aquaculture facilities that inadvertently allowed some stock to escape.

Florida fisheries biologists have studied nonnative fishes and their impacts since the late 1960s and established a Nonnative Fish Research Laboratory in Boca Raton. Although laboratory staff continue to study and be concerned with nonnative fishes, they have not documented measureable negative impacts on native fishes or aquatic habitats. During that time they have exterminated from confined areas several populations of exotic fishes that were discovered early, including redbelly piranha, pirambeba and threespot ciclid. Natural events, particularly cold spells, have eliminated 14 species of previously reproducing nonnative fishes from our waters.
Laboratory staff also helped develop sterile triploid grass carp, which are used (under permit) as an aquatic-plant-control tool, and successfully introduced peacock bass as a biological control for unwanted exotic forage species. Peacocks now support a sport fishery in southeast Florida, with an annual economic benefit of nearly $11 million.

Midas cichlids are often a beautiful orange-red. They were discovered in Florida in 1980. Their native range is Nicaragua and Costa Rica. (Photo courtesy of Alan Zaremba)

During the winter cold snap of 2010, peacock bass, and many other exotic fishes, died in large numbers. The exotic fishery on the L-67A Canal is an excellent example of how these exotic fishes are being utilized by anglers, and effects of the cold. The canal is west of U.S. 27 and south of Alligator Alley and is known not only for great largemouth bass fishing, but also for a diverse array of nonnative fish.

Mayan cichlid, oscar and butterfly peacock bass are the three most popular nonnative species in the canal, but the winter kill in 2010 nearly eliminated them. Catch rates for Mayan cichlid and oscar averaged nine and four fish per hour, respectively, from 2000 to 2009, and butterfly peacock bass were producing two fish per hour of fishing. In the L-67A Canal, in spite of numerous nonnative fishes, the average catch rate for largemouth bass was more than two bass per hour. For comparison, a catch rate of one harvestable largemouth bass per four hours (0.25 fish per hour) is considered typical in the southeastern United States.

Expenditures by anglers fishing for exotic fishes on the L-67A Canal during the past 17 years were estimated at more than $3 million. During that period, anglers spent 22 percent of their time seeking exotics. When the exotic bite is on, people travel long distances to fish the L-67A.

Although the unusually cold winter in 2010 took a toll on exotics in the canal, once their populations rebound, the amount of time spent fishing will increase along with success rates. Meanwhile, urban canals around the more southerly Miami-Homestead area do not get winter kills quite as extreme as L-67A, so anglers fishing for exotics have more consistent success there.

Besides the entertainment associated with fishing for different and often very colorful fish comes the benefit that, except for peacock bass and triploid grass carp, nonnative fishes do not have bag or size limits. Anglers are encouraged to take as many as they can. It is suggested they be immediately placed on ice and not released. Most are good eating, including Mayan cichlid and oscar, as well as other exotics such as brown hoplos and bullseye snakehead. FS

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  • Robert Kinchen

    There should be no bag limit or size limit on any exotic fish Carp and Pecock included. In fact the state should pay a bounty on these fish. They released some of them anyway, go figure.