Sometimes Florida biologists like to see a fish out of water.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is hosting Florida’s first statewide nonnative fish catch to reduce the growing population of troublesome fish species in the state’s waterways.
The Nonnative Fish Catch, Click and Submit Contest, which will last until March 1, involves catching nonnative fish, photographing them and submitting the photos to the FWC.
The contest is open to all licensed fishers in Florida and extends to all legal, freshwater fishing areas in the state.
The contest is a part of National Invasive Species Awareness week taking place Feb. 22-28. It focuses on educating people about the invasive plants and animals that disrupt natural ecosystems.
Kelly Gestring, a biologist at the FWC, said that there are only so many fish that biologists can find and capture on their own.
“Florida is a very big state and has an awful lot of water in it, and there are many places which are not frequently sampled by fish biologists,” Gestring said.
Nonnative fish act as invasive competitors against the native populations. They can steal resources, spread disease and prey on native fish, according to Gestring.
John Petersen, a contest participant, sees this kind of habitat destruction happening in his backyard.
He said he has seen a huge increase in the number of nonnative fish that he reels in over the past two or three years.
The most common invader in Florida is the sailfin catfish. It’s well known among biologists for its tendency to make large burrows on the banks of rivers that contribute to shoreline erosion, according to Gestring.
“I see those sailfin cats all the time and they’re just tearing things up,” Petersen said.
Blue tilapia and Mayan cichlids are also invasive species that are starting to affect native fish habitats across the state.
Petersen said that lately, he hooks about six Mayan cichlids and only one native fish, like the blue gill, when he’s on the water.
The Nonnative Fish Catch, Click and Submit Contest hopes to help solve this problem through involvement, awareness and education.
“I wish [the contest] would run year-round,” Petersen said.
Gestring hopes to see hundreds, if not thousands, of reports coming into the FWC from participants submitting their exotic catches.
“You know, we sure wish the fish weren’t here,” Gestring said. “And part of what we try to do is develop ways in which folks can utilize these unwanted species and that’s part of the essence behind the contest.”
While people can play a big role in removing these species, they are also part of the problem.
Pet owners who dump unwanted fish into lakes and rivers are a major contributor to the rise in invasive fish species, Gestring said.
“That’s very problematic because of the interconnectedness of our state’s water bodies,” he said. “There’s thousands of miles of canals that are connected to one another.”
Liz Barraco, spokeswoman for the FWC, said the event is about raising awareness of the nonnative fish and the issues they cause in Florida.
“People who are out there participating in activities and recreation,” Barraco said. “I think it’s important for them to know what’s happening in the ecosystem around them.”
Those interested can register at http://www.eddmaps.org/ and view the contest rules and prizes at http://www.floridainvasives.org/CatchClickSubmit/index.cfm.