Georgia is a state with almost endless angling potential. Wild Trout in mountain streams, lunker Bass in lakes, Redfish, Tarpon, and so much more in the sea – you’re never far from fish. However, not every catch is meant to be here. There are many invasive fish in Georgia. These uninvited guests are destroying ecosystems and threatening the state’s signature catches.
What are Georgia’s most invasive species? Where did they come from? And what’s being done to stop them? Today, you can learn all about these unwanted invaders, from what they are and where they come from to where they now live and, most importantly, how you can help get rid of them.
What is an invasive species?
Before we jump into things, it’s worth quickly clarifying what makes fish invasive. After all, non-native doesn’t necessarily mean invasive. For example, Brown Trout came all the way from Europe, but they’re now a staple of Georgia’s fly fishing scene. That’s because their numbers are controlled and carefully managed to make sure they fit in with the native ecosystem.
Other species aren’t so considerate. They roll into their new home and start eating up all the available food, running the locals out of town in the process. In Georgia, the biggest offenders are classified as “Aquatic Nuisance Species.” These are the state’s Most Wanted, and you should keep an eye out for them whenever you’re on the water.
Exotic Invaders: Foreign Fish Species in Georgia
Fish have found their way to Georgia from all over the world. Some came here as pets, others as food. However they arrived, they’re determined to stay. The rule of thumb here is to retain, photograph, and report anything that you don’t recognize to the DNR.
A wide mix of small, exotic fish have been illegally released into Georgia’s waters, and around the US in general. These are aquarium pets that were probably released by their owners, or accidentally escaped somehow. Either way, they’ve been breeding rapidly and causing trouble ever since.
The most problematic fish are Cichlid species like Oscar, Tilapia, and Haplo. Pacu is another common pest. It’s also a relative of the Piranha, so watch out for its teeth! They don’t have to be exotic to cause problems, though. Even a plain old Goldfish can become invasive if given the chance.
Lionfish are, quite simply, the most invasive fish in the country. Native to the Indo-Pacific, they arrived in the Caribbean in the 1980s and have been spreading steadily up the Atlantic Coast ever since. They can and do decimate populations of reef fish wherever they arrive.
Lionfish produce tasty meat and there’s no bag limit on them, so you can fill the freezer while also helping the environment. Take care when handling them, though. Those spines pack a nasty punch in the form of potent venom! Check out this guide if you plan on filleting the fish yourself.
If Lionfish are the terrors of the sea, Snakehead are the nightmare of every freshwater angler in America. They arrived from Asia in the early 2000s, and have since been found in over a dozen states. The first Snakehead in Georgia was discovered in late 2019, and the DNR has been on high alert ever since.
What makes Snakehead so dangerous? Put simply, they’re an apex predator and a born survivor. They can live out of water for hours, and even travel across land when necessary. They also look like the native Bowfin, which leads some anglers to release them. If you catch one, kill it or store it safely – simply throwing it onto the bank isn’t enough.
Another born survivor from Asia, this scaleless slitherer can survive in any type of fresh water. Rivers, lakes, swamps, streams – you name it, they’ll adapt to it. They’re even able to change their gender if there are too many specimens of one sex, so populations can explode from just a few of them.
A potential problem with Asian Swamp Eels is that they can easily be mistaken for a regular American Eel. The main difference between the two is that Swamp Eels don’t have scales, while American Eels do. Swamp Eels also have a much blunter nose than their native counterparts.
This last one isn’t a fish, but it causes more than enough problems to make it onto the list. Tiger Shrimp come from the Indo-Pacific, but a few escaped a fish farm in the ‘80s and you can now find them from Texas to North Carolina. For a long time, they weren’t a big problem. However, these super-sized Shrimp have been showing up in bigger and bigger numbers in recent years.
The good news is that Tiger Shrimp are great eating! They can grow to twice the size of native species, and taste just as good. Before you get out there and start hauling in a feast, though, make sure you learn how to identify Tiger Shrimp. You should also report any you come across.
Local Bullies: Native Fish, New Waters
It’s not just exotic imports that cause problems in Georgia’s waters. Plenty of American species are up to no good, too. Most of these are actually native to parts of Georgia, but have spread out of their natural habitat and taken over new waters. Here are a few fish to look out for, and where they cause the most problems.
Spotted Bass used to only live in streams feeding the Tennessee River way up in the northwest of Georgia. Nowadays, they’ve spread across almost half the state. They’re especially harmful to Smallmouth, and have entirely replaced them in some waters, such as the once-great Lake Chatuge.
Alabama Bass are a similar story. These bigger and faster-growing cousins of the Spotted Bass make a habit of interbreeding with other Black Bass species. They’re native to the Coosa and Tallapoosa Rivers, but now live in Chestatee, Chattahoochee, and Ocmulgee Rivers, as well as Lakes Lanier, Burton, and Chatuge.
Lastly, Yellow Bass. These little terrors have escaped the Tennessee River drainage and now live in the Etowah and Oostanaula rivers, as well as Carter’s Lake and the Rocky Mountain PFA. The State encourages anglers to catch and eat as many of these fast-breeding Panfish as they can. That’s the kind of conservation we can all get on board with!
Flathead Catfish love eating Sunfish, They really, really love it. That was fine when the Cats were in their natural waters in the Coosa River. But when they spread into the Altamaha and Satilla Rivers, it became a problem. The Satilla River is particularly famous for its Redbreast Sunfish, so the DNR has launched a large-scale project to remove these unwelcome intruders.
Blue Catfish are also native to the Coosa River, but have been spotted in dozens of spots around the state. Blue Cats grow even bigger than Flatheads and have just as much of an appetite, so they’re not great for fish stocks, to say the least. All in all, there’s never been a better time to start catfishing.
Last but not least is the humble Herring. Two species of Herring are invasive in Georgia: Blueback Herring and Alewife. They’ve always been around on the coast, but have now made their way inland, too. The Middle Savannah, Upper Coosa, Hiwassee, Ocoee, and Etowah Rivers all hold them these days, as do several mountain lakes and reservoirs.
Unlike most other species on this list, Herring aren’t what you’d call apex hunters. However, they do have an almost bottomless appetite for fish eggs and fry, which can devastate the entire food chain. Luckily, such a rich diet makes them extremely tasty, so feel free to fill up on them next time you’re out!
How to Fight Invasive Fish
It’s all well and good knowing what species are invasive, but actually doing something about them is a little tougher. The general government advice comes down to the “Four Rs.” No, we’re not talking about reducing and recycling. We mean Refrain, Remove, Report, and Remember.
- Refrain from relocating or introducing fish into new areas. Whether it’s your pet Goldfish or your favorite breed of Bass, bringing new fish into an area is never a good idea. Leave it to the professionals to introduce and manage new species.
- Remove any non-native fish you come across. Kill it, or better still, keep it in a sealed container so that scientists can study it if they need to. This is especially important for fish you can’t identify – it may be a new invader, or even a super-rare local species!
- Report any non-native fish you find – especially known invaders. Try to give as much info as possible, such as the size and number of fish you caught, as well as the location and time of day. Report your catch online or contact your local DNR office.
- Remember to keep up good angler hygiene. Clean, drain, and fry your equipment after every fishing trip, and take extra precautions before heading to new waters. You don’t want to be the reason a new invasion starts!
A Constant Battle
Maintaining our fisheries is no easy task. It’s a constant battle to keep unwanted species out of our waters. All it takes is one well-meaning aquarium owner. One poorly-thought-out stocking effort, and entire ecosystems can become overrun with invasive fish.
It’s down to all of us to do our bit, reporting new catches and keeping our gear clean and free of hitchhikers. At the same time, we all need to help native species along by releasing them safely whenever we can. It’s not all hard work, though. You can have a blast battling Snakehead or make a Tiger Shrimp feast while also helping the environment. That’s what we call a win-win!
Have you caught any of the fish on our list? What are the most invasive fish where you’re from? Drop us your stories or ask us a question in the comments below – we’d love to hear from you!