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Stay Away: Help Florida Fight a New Invasive Species Threat

In a state with 19-foot pythons and uncountable lionfish, zebra mussels can get lost in the shuffle, so let's keep it that way!

Stay Away: Help Florida Fight a New Invasive Species Threat
Inspect these areas on your boat and trailer after coming off the water. (cleandraindry.org screenshot)

Even if someone is only a casual news observer, there’s little doubt that invasive species are a big problem in Florida and continue to make headlines.

Because while other states in the country make their own headlines for invasive species problems, few make the headlines that the Sunshine State of Florida does. From giant Burmese pythons to large Nile monitors, there are more than enough unwanted critters who have made themselves at home from the Everglades northward to the quail country found in the pine trees near the Florida/Georgia line.

Even in the salty deep, invasive species have caused trouble, something confirmed by a recent news release from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. That news release deals with the lionfish, an invasive marine species that can have a negative impact on Florida's native saltwater species and habitat.

In the case of two of those invasive species mentioned above—the lionfish and the Burmese python—FWC officials want to get rid of them so much that there are actually two contests designed to remove them from the landscape. 

The first of those is the 2024 Lionfish Challenge, a free summer-long lionfish tournament that runs from May 24 to Sept. 2 this year, a conservation oriented effort that has removed more than 195,000 lionfish since it began in 2016. 

The second event is the 2024 Florida Python Challenge, which seeks to remove as many of the invasive pythons as possible to protect native wildlife in the state where the contest runs from Aug. 9-18 this year. Last year, 917 pythons were removed from Florida and since the turn of the 21st Century, some 21,000+ have been removed. This is vitally important since pythons are found in and around the Everglades ecosystem in South Florida, and grow to be very large  with weights of as much as 215 pounds along with having females that can lay as many as 50 to 100 eggs at a time.

As awful as those invasive species noted above can be, there are still other unwanted hitchhikers that try to find their way into the Sunshine State, and if they do, can potentially wreak havoc on Florida’s treasured natural resources. One of those, the zebra mussel, has caused tremendous trouble elsewhere, including the Great Lakes, the southern U.S., the Midwest, and the southern Great Plains states of Texas and Oklahoma.

Given all of the attention that pythons, monitors, lionfish, and others can bring to the Sunshine State news headline cycles, it might be a little understandable when a potential freshwater threat from something as small as a zebra mussel gets reported. Ditto for a news story that talks about the Clean.Drain.Dry national campaign against aquatic invasive species like the little zebra mussel. 

Against that backdrop, and what is already on the loose in Florida, it’s easy to think that the invasive zebra mussel—which are generally  1 to 1 ½ inches in size—is an Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS) that really isn’t that big of a deal compared to a 19-foot python.

While FWC reports that zebra mussels haven't established themselves yet in the state of Florida, the agency also notes that in March 2021, moss balls imported into the state for the aquarium trade were found to be contaminated with zebra mussels and their microscopic larvae.

Since the zebra mussels are well established elsewhere, what exactly can a Florida angler or boater do to help ensure that zebra mussels—and other unwanted AIS critters don’t make it to the state’s freshwater water bodies? 

For one thing, understand what is required around the U.S. In Florida, the Clean.Drain.Dry.Org website notes that for the Sunshine State, state regulations necessitate that all "Vessels and trailers launched in Florida waters must be free of aquatic organisms. All watercraft, trailers, and gear must be organism free before leaving a body of water, and all water must be drained. Please practice Clean Drain Dry before entering and before leaving each waterbody."

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While the C.D.D. website doesn't show any local boat inspection facilities in Florida according to the online mapping tool, you might want to keep that link handy if you're going to travel to other states in the country to fish and/or boat.

Another thing you can do to help prevent the spread of AIS problems like the zebra mussel is to participate in something like the Traveling Boater Behavior Survey. While that might not seem like much, it can help officials understand what is needed and how to plan better for stopping the spread of these unwanted hitchhikers. 

And finally, realize that such problems, as far fetched as they might sound for some, can and do happen in your own backyard. And you don’t want that to happen, trust me.

Why is that? Because as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers explains, zebra mussels are small, thumbnail-size, d-shaped mussels that have a zebra-like pattern of stripes. Native to the Caspian Sea region of Asia, the unwanted aquatic hitchhikers were introduced into the Great Lakes most likely through ballast water from ocean-going vessels arriving in the U.S. in the mid-1980s. That region is where authorities made the first discovery of zebra mussels, occurring in Lake St. Clair in 1988.

Spreading throughout the Great Lakes, and down the Mississippi River basin, zebra mussels can spread prolifically, with the Corps of Engineers noting that there have been reports of 75,000 per square foot in extreme infestations. Because of those sheer numbers, and the zebra mussel's ability to attach itself to solid objects, water intake pipes, water control structures, boat hulls, propellers, trailers, submerged rocks, vegetation, marina docks and cables, and even other aquatic species, such infestations are certainly problematic.

Even more worrisome is the ecological toll that zebra mussels can bring. According to biologists, these invasive mussels feed by filtering water and removing nutrients from the H2O, nutrients that are vital to the growth and survival of other aquatic organisms.

With the knowledge of how prolific they are, also note that according to a Copper Development Association news release, zebra mussels can live four to five years; inhabit freshwater depths of six to 24-feet; have females that can produce 30,000 to 1 million eggs annually; can attach to slow moving species like turtles and crawfish; and can even colonize on native clam shells and mussels to the point that there are 10,000+ attached to them and the native critter is unable to open its own shell and feed.

Because the invasive species has made itself at home in numerous places throughout the Great Lakes, the Midwest, the South and Southern Great Plains and westward all the way to California, there’s no reason to doubt that zebra mussels could eventually be a problem in Florida too.. 

Also keep in mind that zebra mussels are only one of many AIS problems out there that outdoors enthusiasts, fisheries biologists, water supply managers, and more are dealing with across the country. Such unwanted species—including things like quagga mussels, mud crabs, and more—can wreak havoc, are expensive to control, and the problems they cause won’t go away anytime soon.

And all of that is exactly why boaters, anglers, and hunters all across Florida should do their part to be good stewards of our natural resources, complying with state regulations and using the Clean.Drain.Dry principles to help fight this AIS problem everywhere it exists and doing all that can be done to keep such problems from spreading into the Sunshine State’s borders.

How can you help stop the spread of invasive species like the zebra mussel, while protecting Florida’s abundant lakes, rivers, streams, and wetlands? You can help do so by adhering to the Clean.Drain.Dry principles each time you visit a waterway or water body. 

First, clean off plants, animals, and mud from your boats, fishing equipment, and hunting gear. That includes a waterfowl hunter's waders, an angler's wet footwear, ropes and anchors, bait containers and nets, downrigger cables, fishing line, and even lures. 

Next, drain water from your boat, kayak, canoe, or personal watercraft. That includes outboard motors, trolling motors, bilge pumps, bladder tanks, a livewell, bait containers and tanks, and doing so before leaving the water's access point. 

Finally wipe everything down and dry it all for five days or more, unless local and state mandates say otherwise. Do this when moving between waters so as to kill small species not easily discovered. If there is unwanted bait, fish parts, or other materials that have come in contact with the water, dispose of it in the trash and do not dump it on land or back into the water.

And as noted by other organizations working to stop the spread, there are other steps that outdoors enthusiasts can take, including the use of non-felted wading boot soles for fly anglers heading north for a Smoky Mountain trout stream, the washing and drying of waders used by a duck hunter this winter, and even draining water from scuba tank regulators, cylinder boots, and other dive gear.

And last but not least, if you think you've discovered a new invasive sighting, report it to state or local authorities, or use the U.S. Geological Survey Sighting Report Form along with taking a photo and noting the time, the date, and a location.

All of this might seem a little overblown for Floridians, perhaps a bit confusing, and even an unnecessary endeavor for those who never have seen a zebra mussel or their unwanted AIS cousins.

But as the headlines suggest, Florida isn’t immune to invasive land-based and water-based species, and the only way to keep that from happening again with zebra mussels is to be aware, cautious, and observant.

Because if Sunshine State residents will do all that they can to help stop the spread of zebra mussels and other AIS critters into the state, there’s no reason that Florida has to appear in any additional new news stories in the years to come, all thanks to a pesky little critter that sure does like to wreak havoc elsewhere.

Except Florida, that is, and let’s keep it that way.




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