“In such cases as this, we follow our well-established protocol for dealing with these matters rather than running about shouting: ‘The sky is falling! The sky is falling!’” Shafland said. “And this is not the first time that an exotic fish has stimulated such an end-of-the-ecosystem-as-we-know-it type of hysteria; in fact, it is very reminiscent of the same distorted coverage the Walking Catfish received back in the late 1960s and 70s.”
“Now we know that all the gloom and doom predictions about the Walking Catfish in 60s and 70s were unfounded,” Courtenay said. “Do we still have Walking Catfish in Florida? Yes. Are they a problem? Yes, but their documented negative impact on native freshwater species has been negligible compared to the catastrophe they were projected to be in media accounts.”
“These stories never seem to die; they just seem to lie dormant until a new species is reported that has an especially unusual appearance, behavior, and/or even just a strange name” Hill said. A few years ago similar stories surfaced about the Asian Swamp Eel that generated similar concerns by the public.
The real story here is that numerous unwanted exotic animals continue to be released into North America and elsewhere by well-meaning but misinformed individuals. Not only is this illegal, it is ecologically irresponsible, and often harmful to the animal itself.
“How would you like to be dumped in the Antarctic or in the middle of a rain forest far from anything you were familiar with, to fend for yourself” Shafland rhetorically asks. Most of these illegally released animals die premature deaths because they are unable to adjust to their new surroundings. But those that do survive and reproduce can create serious problems for species and wildlife managers.
Shafland points out that 32 exotic fish species have been found reproducing in Florida’s freshwaters, and 22 of these are considered permanent residents. In few cases, FWC has been able to quickly eliminate new exotic species, but because most are found in open and interconnected waterways, eradication is not generally feasible.
“Preventing exotic species from gaining a foothold is the only sensible approach, it’s our first and most important line of defense,” Shafland said. “During the past 40 years, the FWC has developed comprehensive and multifaceted programs to deal with this problem which includes specialized law enforcement personnel who enforce the various prohibitions and controls governing exotic fish and wildlife in the State.”
Once the wall of prevention is breached by a new exotic, the options are limited, he admits. The Bullseye Snakehead, for instance, cannot be eradicated or trapped out of existence. “It’s here to stay, unless they somehow disappear on their own, something no one is expecting them to do” Shafland said.
“In the meantime, we are trying to learn as much as we can about the Bullseye Snakehead by studying its life history, environmental limiting factors, and associations with other fish species,” he said. These studies started immediately after the discovery of this fish in October of 2000, “but this process is a long way from being completed,” he added.
Shafland explains the FWC continuously looks for management approaches that minimize the risks snakeheads and other exotic fishes might have, while at the same time developing methods to utilize these unwelcome resources. He points out that Oscar and Mayan cichlid, exotic fishes native to Central and South America, are now targeted by some anglers fishing in the Everglades, and wild tilapia are commercially harvested for food from many central Florida lakes. Although none of these exotic species are considered desirable by Shafland, he adds that “the idea here is to get the public involved in helping us to reduce their numbers by using them for recreational and/or food purposes.”
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