Invasive Fish in Florida: All You Need to Know

Florida is a great place to live if you’re a fish. From warm-water canals to colorful reefs, the Sunshine State is an ideal home for hundreds of different fish species. But not all of them are meant to be here. There are a lot of non-native and invasive fish in Florida, and they cause all kinds of problems.

Where did these fish come from? What makes some of them invasive? And what’s being done to stop them from spreading? In this article, you can learn all about Florida’s “most wanted” fish species and why you should catch as many of them as you can.

What is an Invasive Fish?

The U.S. Geological Survey defines invasive fish as any species which is outside of its native range and has the potential to damage the local environment, economy, or public health. It could be an exotic fish released from an aquarium or a species from a neighboring state that starts to take over. Some of them were actually introduced on purpose to fight other invaders, but just ended up compounding the problem.

Non-Native Fish vs. Invasive Fish

A Peacock Bass, a non-native fish in Florida.

So are all non-native fish invasive? Not necessarily. Only fish that are actively causing problems count as invasive. Some have found their place in the local ecosystem, while others are deliberately maintained or simply too new to judge.

Peacock Bass are the great success story of Florida’s exotic fish. They come from Brazil and were introduced in Florida in the ‘80s. These days, they’re one of the state’s most popular game fish and have slotted into the food chain without threatening native populations.

Other species are carefully maintained to make sure their numbers don’t get out of hand. The Asian Grass Carp is the perfect example of this. Grass Carp were stocked in lakes and ponds around Florida to fight invasive plant life. To control the population, the FWC only stocks “triploid” Grass Carp, which have been adapted to make them sterile.

Rules for Catching Invasive Fish in Florida

An Asian Grass Carp
The general rule for non-native fish is “kill as many as possible.” But some, like Grass Carp, are protected.

In general, there’s no season or bag limit for non-native or invasive fish in Florida. You can head out and catch as many as you like, whenever you want. More than that, it’s actually illegal to release the fish alive. You either have to take them home and eat them, make them into bait, or find some other way to dispose of them.

As always, the exceptions prove the rule. Peacock Bass are classified as game fish and have a set bag and size limit. Asian Grass Carp are illegal to harvest because the FWC only stocks sterile, triploid Carp. The rules for other fish could also change in the future, so always check if you’re not sure.

Invasive Fish Species in Florida

So, you know what an invasive fish is and get the rules on how to deal with them. Now it’s time to take a look at the fish themselves. With that in mind, here’s a list of the most invasive fish in Florida.

Lionfish

A Red Lionfish, the most invasive fish in Florida.

Lionfish are public enemy number one among Floridian conservation experts. We’ve written at length about these little monsters but we’ll cover the basics again. Because honestly, they’re a bigger problem than most of the others combined.

Lionfish have decimated fish populations all along the East Coast and right around the Gulf. Florida is “ground zero” for the Lionfish epidemic, and they’re such a big problem that the FWC even put a $5,000 bounty out on them in 2018.

As with all invasive fish, there’s no bag limit and no minimum size. The thing that makes Lionfish special is that you don’t even need a license to catch them if you’re using a pole spear. On top of that, they’re delicious! Just watch out for those spines – they’re full of venom and can give you a nasty sting.

Snakehead

A young angler on a kayak holding a Snakehead fish next to a bridge.

Strong, aggressive, and highly predatory, Snakehead seem like a bad choice of pet. That’s probably how they arrived in the US, though. All we know for sure is that they started showing up in canals around Pompano Beach in the year 2000 and have since become the most invasive freshwater fish in Florida.

There are two species of Snakehead in Florida: Bullseye Snakehead and Northern Snakehead. They both look similar to native Bowfin and anglers regularly mix them up. The best way to tell the two apart is by looking at their fins – Snakehead have much longer anal fins and their pelvic fins are at the front, underneath the pectoral fins. Bowfin have much shorter anal fins and their pelvic fins are located on their belly.

Snakehead are apex predators and put up a great fight on light tackle. They’re also a prized food fish in Asia, where they originally come from. Make sure you keep your hands well clear of a Snakehead’s mouth when handling it. They have a nasty bite that more than earns them their name.

Clown Knife Fish

An anglers holding a fly fishing rod and an invasive clown knife fish.

It seems like all the invasive fish in Florida get interesting names. The Clown Knife Fish takes the cake, and it has outlandish looks to match. In their native range, they’re a popular food fish. In Florida, they’re a predatory pest with undeniable star appeal.

Clown Knife Fish originate from the tropical waters of Indochina. They’re a popular aquarium fish that either escaped or was released into the waters around Lake Ida by a private owner. Since then, they’ve established themselves as the menace of the Boca Raton/West Palm Beach area.

They may not put up the same fight as Snakehead, but their looks and acrobatics make them a popular catch among visiting anglers. In fact, some guides run special “exotic grand slam” tours targeting Clown Knife Fish, Snakehead, and Peacock Bass.

Blue Tilapia

A Blue Tilapia, one of the most invasive fish in Florida.

Tilapia are a staple food fish in Northern Africa and the Middle East. They’re grown commercially all around the world for their flaky, white meat. Unfortunately, some of them escaped from fish farms in the ‘60s and have been running rampant ever since.

As well as the Blue Tilapia, Spotted Tilapia cause big problems in South Florida. They’re actually the main reason the state introduced Peacock Bass. The Bass have done a great job since then, and Spotted Tilapia are considered non-native rather than invasive these days.

Tilapia don’t put up much of a fight, but they sure are delicious. As with every fish on this list, you can catch as many of them as you like, so become a conservationist and enjoy a fishy feast at the same time!

Mayan Cichlid

A happy angler in a cap and sunglasses holding a Mayan Cichlid fish.

Mayan Cichlid aren’t technically invasive, but they’re a real pest and have become a go-to target for exotic fish lovers and light tackle fans in Florida. They first showed up in Florida Bay in the early ‘80s and have since spread all over South Florida. They’ve even reached Lake Okeechobee the St. Lucie Canal.

They may be small, but Mayan Cichlid are a ton of fun on light spinning or fly fishing gear. These “Atomic Sunfish” are aggressive and hardy and can punch well above their weight.

Mayan Cichlid may be the most widespread Cichlid in Florida, but they’re not the only one. Jewel Cichlid are also pretty common, as are Oscar. All these fish are non-native and delicious, so bag as many as you can.

And So Many More!

Lots of Tilapia fish swarming on the surface.

There are plenty more non-native nuisances in Florida’s waterways. Brown Hoplo, Asian Swamp Eel, Jaguar Guapote, Sailfin and Suckermouth Catfish, the list goes on.

And that’s just the foreign species. Blue and Flathead Catfish are considered non-native in most of the state. They’ve always been around in parts of the Panhandle but have expanded much farther south and east in recent years.

Keeping up with all these fish is a constant battle for the FWC, and they could use all the help they can get. So next time you’re down in the Sunshine State, why not give the local species a break and catch some of these invaders instead? They can be just as fun and even more tasty. Who said conservation had to be dull?

These are the most invasive fish in Florida, but what about where you are? What are the biggest pests in your area? Which ones are your favorite to catch? Let us know in the comments below!

Leave a Reply