Dedicated to the Conservation of Southeastern Fishes
Burrowing Catfish Threaten Lake Okeechobee Dikes And Levees
June 21, 2004
CLEWISTON -- An invasive catfish that can burrow holes in canal banks is threatening the safety of dikes and levees around Florida's largest lake.
The population of the South American sailfin catfish is exploding in Lake Okeechobee, and the spiky fish has burrowed 3-foot holes between Clewiston and Moore Haven, about 15 miles.
"They're everywhere," said Jan Jeffrey Hoover, a Mississippi-based biologist for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Hoover said the burrows allow water to erode a bank from within, eventually making it collapse like a sinkhole. Although he said that type of erosion hasn't been spotted in Lake Okeechobee, burrows could be hidden below the water line.
Unlike native catfish, the South American catfish are protected by a flexible bony armor with saw-toothed barbs. Their side and back fins bristle with spikes, which Hoover said have been blamed for choking pelicans in Puerto Rico. They can grow to more than 2 feet and wreak ecological havoc: bulldozing aquatic plants, churning silt, competing with native species and accidentally scarfing up smaller fish.
Scientists say the catfish have been seen in Florida waters since at least the early 1970s, probably after being released from aquariums. Hoover said he frequently sees them for sale in pet stores, often mislabeled as the smaller, more benign Hypostomus catfish.
But the population has boomed only recently.
"We went from catching one a year, mainly in the summer.... Now it's thousands of pounds," said Mike McCall, manager of Rudd's Fish House here.
In the Southwind Lakes subdivision west of Boca Raton, catfish burrows have eroded feet of shoreline behind homes during the past six years, property manager Sheri Scarborough said. She said she has fallen into the burrows when the sod above them gave way.
"You're walking along and think you're on solid ground _ and, boom, you go right down," she said.
No eradication program exists but Hoover has recommended that wildlife managers try to contain the catfish's spread, for instance by encouraging fishermen to sell them as food.