After a non-native tropical fish was removed from the ocean off Key Largo, scientists are hoping to prevent it and similar invasive species from gaining a foothold in South Florida waters similar to the way the lionfish population exploded from the time it was first spotted in 1985 up to now.
Unlike the carnivorous lionfish, the orangespine unicornfish, like the one found and removed from Molasses Reef Wednesday morning, eats seaweed and algae. But Lad Atkins, director of special projects for the Reef Environmental Education Foundation in Key Largo, said its presence is nonetheless worrisome.
“Anything that doesn’t belong in our ecosystem has the potential to bring other issues with it,” Atkins said Friday. “If we wait to see what those impacts are, they’ve already occurred and we miss the window for prevention.”
The unicornfish has a broad native habitat in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The fish found off Key Largo was likely released by someone who had been keeping it in an aquarium, said Andy Dehart, vice president of Animal Husbandry for the Frost Museum of Science in Miami.
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“The orangespine unicornfish is a very common home aquarium fish, and although the owners likely thought they were doing the right thing for the animal, they were not aware of the potential negative impact. It is extremely important that no pets are released into the wild,” Dehart said in a statement.
The fish was first spotted in late March off Key Largo by a group of scuba divers visiting from Eckerd College in St. Petersburg. They reported the sighting, and a notice went out to local dive shops after a second sighting by diver Jesus Gudino of Key Largo last Saturday, Atkins said.
A “rapid response plan” was developed by REEF and the U.S. Geological Survey, and the groups obtained a special research permit through the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. A team of four divers from REEF and the Frost museum, along with Roger Grimes from Key Largo, located and found the fish Wednesday morning on the reef.
Atkins said the fish was the fourth reported orangespine unicornfish found in the United States. Three of those were in Florida and one in Georgia.
“We haven’t seen one in a while, but it’s certainly not the first one to end up in our coastal waters,” Atkins said.
Anyone seeing a fish that does not appear to be native should contact the USGS Nonindigenous Species Database.
David Goodhue: 305-923-9728