Invasive Fish in Florida: All You Need to Know
Apr 8, 2019 | 6 minute read Comments
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Reading Time: 6 minutes

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!

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Comments (39)
  • William Berg

    May 18, 2019

    Tilapia are cichlids, so are the peacock bass.

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      Albert

      May 20, 2019

      Hi William,

      Thanks for setting the record straight!

      We mainly focused on Mayan Chichlids (mayaheros urophthalmus) and Blue Tilapia (oreochromis aureus) because they cause the most trouble. You’re completely right, though – there are a bunch of different Chichlid species in Florida these days.

      Thanks again for the comment.

      Tight lines!

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  • Mark Halmo

    May 20, 2019

    Bagged a Clown Knife fish this weekend in my community “lake”.

    Our water way connects to the Boynton canal via our control gate just south of Jog road in unincorporated Boynton Beach.
    Water flow is bidirectional.

    I have fished this waterway extensively for ten years and this is the first clown I have caught. My son hooked and lost a second clown in the same spot…
    The first one was in the boat. And we drifted past the same patch of lily pads.
    Hmmmm breeding?

    The landed fish was removed from the water way and disposed of in an environmentally friendly manner. The local buzzards made quick work of it.

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      Albert

      May 22, 2019

      Hi Mark,

      That’s sad to hear. Clowns may look cool but they’re a real menace!

      It’s good that you safely disposed of the fish. Did you report the sighting to the FCW? If not, you can find out how to do so here.

      Tight lines!

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      glen

      Jun 22, 2019

      many thanks Mark Halmo, I try and “clean out” the non native and invasive fish every time I fish…. Gar, Clowns,mudders all of em get tossed way up into to weeds, far away from any water. the buzzards need work too! haha

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      Roger

      Jun 24, 2019

      Why kill gar and mudfish? They are native fish.

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      GLEN

      Jun 25, 2019

      WHERE I FISH THEY’RE INVASIVE… NUFF SAID

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      Roger

      Jun 27, 2019

      Those are not officially listed as invasive ANYWHERE in the US. What country are you in?

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      Fee

      Mar 18, 2020

      It’s illegal to kill alligator gar in Florida.

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      Albert

      Mar 18, 2020

      Hi Fee,

      You’re completely right. It’s illegal to harvest Alligator Gar without a special scientific research permit.

      However, Florida and Longnose Gar are considered non-game fish and have no general bag or possession limits.

      We’d still recommend releasing them whenever possible, though.

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      Albert

      Jun 24, 2019

      Hi Glen,

      Thanks for your comments.

      You should definitely push your HOA think carefully about what they stock. The FWC has a detailed guide to pond management that might help. It states that “Fish species you should not stock are common carp, brown bullhead, black crappie (in most situations), Georgia Giants, Nile perch (tilapia), any non-native or aquarium species.”

      However, as Roger pointed out, Gar and Mudfish (Bowfin) are both native species which we should try and protect.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the article, and that you’re engaged in protecting Florida’s waters from invasive pests.

      Tight lines!

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      glen

      Jun 22, 2019

      My HOA wants to stock our lakes with TILAPIA of all things to control the weeds…. I’m afraid they’ll wipe out the small and juvenile bass,I’ve seen Tilapia populations blow up all kinds of waterways. As it is now, the lakes is nearly overrun with sliders as it is….
      I just read about the grass carp and that the FWC is stocking sterile fish to prevent reproduction so I’m certainly going to push the board to take small steps in the decision making of what to stock and what NOT to stock

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      RON RICO

      Aug 20, 2019

      By far. your best choice is the triploid grass carp. The tilipia have to be a very specific variety or they will take over and not eat the grass.

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      glen

      Aug 24, 2019

      thanks Ron Rico,

      I wasn’t aware of different “variety” of Tilapia… I only know the little buggers can wipe out everything.

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  • Kelly Wallace

    Aug 13, 2019

    The lake in my back yard now has a new fish that everyone is calling Pacu. They are like big discs that hit the surface hard. Especially if you through out hot dog chunks. They have teeth that cuts the line anytime you hook one so no ones landed one yet. But we see them swim by. Mean.

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      Albert

      Aug 13, 2019

      Hi Kelly,

      From what I remember, Pacu are a close relative of Piranhas, so I can definitely see them biting through your line!

      Have your reported them to the FWC? If not, you can do so here.

      It’s best to catch these things as soon as possible, before they spread or mess with the local food chain.

      Tight lines!

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      Damion

      Oct 15, 2019

      Kelly,

      I would love to see a pacu! I have heard of them being found in Florida but have never actually met anyone that has found a spot where they live.

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  • GLEN

    Aug 13, 2019

    Hey Kelly ,
    you gotta get those fish out of your lake by whatever means…. you gotta kill them all or they will wipe out all the other fish populations in no time

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  • RON RICO

    Aug 20, 2019

    Recently I caught several juvenile mayan cichlids in my .5 acre pond. The pond has no ingress or egress. There is a deep artesian well that is controlled by a valve. How these cichlids could have gotten in my pond is puzzling? They were not in the pond two years ago, and I did not introduce them! There is also a slender catfish, slightly larger than a cory, with a slight greenish shiny coloring. I haven’t been able to identify.

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      Albert

      Aug 21, 2019

      Hi Ron,

      That’s sad to hear. Have you experienced any flooding in your area over the last couple of years? It’s possible for fish to be transported from nearby ponds or streams that way.

      I recommend you contact the FWC to get advice on dealing with the invading fish.

      I hope you can get your pond back to normal soon!

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  • Don

    Sep 22, 2019

    was feeding the ducks today when a snakehead came up and ate the bread. he was a good 2ft long. this is in a small retention pond in tampa. did someone put it there? never saw him before.

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      Sean

      Sep 23, 2019

      Hi Don,

      Thanks for reading.

      That must have been some sight. Seeing as Snakehead are native to Africa and Asia, they must have been artificially introduced to the retention pond you’re mentioning.

      As to how and why someone did this, we can only speculate.

      Thanks for sharing!

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  • Thomas

    Sep 23, 2019

    It says blue tilapia don’t put up much of a fight but I used to live in Florida and they put up just as much of a fight and sometimes more fight than a blue gill.

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      Albert

      Sep 24, 2019

      Hi Thomas,

      Thanks for the comment. Ever angler has a different experience I guess.

      Most importantly, that’s even more of a reason to go out and catch lots of them!

      Tight lines

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  • Robert Huff

    Oct 10, 2019

    I live in Wellington Fl and we have Snakehead’s in all the canals around us. I caught one that was 28 inches long on a watermelon candy worm by the neighbors little dock. What a fight to land that thing I rig with 20 lb braid so maybe the braid is why he didn’t get off. Lake Wellington has Peacock Bass as well.

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      Albert

      Oct 11, 2019

      Hi Robert,

      That sure sounds like quite a fight! I hope you disposed of it properly after you caught it.

      How big do the Peacocks get around there?

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      Erik

      Apr 16, 2020

      I live on a canal that connects to Lake Wellington. I’m not a fisherman, but I can see fish gathering in the shallows in my backyard. There are a ton of peacock bass, probably the largest is 10 inches or so.

      I just spotted an Asian grass carp munching on weeds near the shoreline, must’ve been 28 inches long or more.

      I also see some kind of gar regularly, not sure which species. I don’t fish, so I never see these critters out if the water! There’s also a mysterious white fish I haven’t identified.

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      Albert

      Apr 16, 2020

      Hi Erik,

      Sounds like you’ve got your very own aquarium!

      I’m interested in the white fish. How big is it? Is it Tilapia-shaped or is it longer?

      All the best!

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  • Damion

    Oct 15, 2019

    I am trying to imagine eating Jewel Cichlids. lol

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  • Greg

    Apr 12, 2020

    We have a large brackish water canal in a Tampa bay estuary full of Mayan Tilapia up to 2 pounds. The water is fairly clear because of fresh water springs as well as the tidal flow. These “Atomic Sunfish” never get a break. We are catching them on hook or cast net and eating them up.

    But the the best contribution they make are to the stomachs of the massive snook that are constantly gorging on them. Awesome wildlife show watching them get snapped up.

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      Albert

      Apr 13, 2020

      Hi Greg,

      Thanks for reading and for getting in touch.

      Sounds like an easy meal for you and the Snook. Are the Tilapia numbers stable there, or are they increasing?

      Tight lines!

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      Greg

      Apr 13, 2020

      These Mayan seem to be stable. They also come under predation from the many avian specie we have assaulting them.

      We are keeping watch over them (I have a waterside platform 10 feet above the waterline so we can see them using polaraized sunglasses). My main concern is that even the large snook might have trouble swallowing some of the two + pounders.

      But I don’t have any trouble at all swallowing them myself! The fact that they come out of salt flavored water makes them tastier than the strictly freshwater ones which seem to have more of a “lake” taste.

      These Mayan will strike a Mepps spinner and put up quite a fight for their size.

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      Albert

      Apr 14, 2020

      Hi Greg,

      Loading up on tasty, hard-fighting fish and helping local conservation efforts? Talk about a win-win!

      It’s great to hear that you’re keeping an eye on their numbers. Catch a couple for us next time you’re fishing, will you?

      Tight lines!

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  • Greg

    Apr 14, 2020

    Will Do.

    My hope is that one of these Mayan get big enough to qualify for the State record catch on hook and line. My 6 year old grandson loves catching them.

    Hmm, I wonder if the State would allow a 6 year old to be a record holder?

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      Albert

      Apr 15, 2020

      I don’t see why not, as long as he reels it in himself.

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  • Scott

    Jun 30, 2020

    I go fishing with my kids all the timer here in Wellington. We always catch those Mayan Cichlids. I had no idea they were invasive. So we should just throw them in the weeds instead of putting them back???

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      Albert

      Jun 30, 2020

      Hi Scott,

      If I were you I’d take them home and eat them!

      If you don’t want to keep them all, you should kill them and dispose of them, either by throwing them in the trash or leaving them somewhere out of the water where they won’t bother other people. Make sure you identify them correctly before you do, though.

      Tight lines!

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  • RIchard

    Jul 3, 2020

    I moved to the villages a year ago. When a first got there a walked over a bridge over lake Sumter and saw bass on their beds everywhere. A year later, I walked over the same bridge and only talipia were on the same beds. I saw one bass that got close one of the beds and a tilapia chased away. No more black bass.

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      Albert

      Jul 6, 2020

      Hi Richard,

      That’s really sad to hear!

      All the more reason to get out there and reel in some Tilapia for dinner.

      Tight lines!

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