Environment

When an invasive fish is spotted in Florida, these Keys divers get the call

REEF team finds, captures invasive Pacific rabbitfish

An invasive Pacific Ocean fish pulled off a Broward County artificial reef by a Key Largo dive team has a new life as a featured exhibit at a new Miami science museum.
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An invasive Pacific Ocean fish pulled off a Broward County artificial reef by a Key Largo dive team has a new life as a featured exhibit at a new Miami science museum.

An invasive Pacific Ocean fish pulled off a Broward County artificial reef by a Key Largo dive team has a new life as a featured exhibit the new Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science.

“Every once in a while, we get something off the wall,” said Emily Stokes, an invasive-species specialist with the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) based in Key Largo.

In October, REEF’s rapid-response team received a report about a nonnative fish swimming at the Dania Beach Erojacks, a nearshore artificial reef about 12 to 15 feet deep.

Broward County resident Jenny Wuenschel, a longtime REEF volunteer, sent along photos confirming the presence of a onespot rabbitfish, native to the Pacific. REEF and the U.S. Geological Survey planned a response.

“The goal of the rapid-reponse unit is to try to prevent another invasive species from taking hold, like the lionfish invasion,” Stokes said. “We didn’t have that for the lionfish, and now it’s pretty much out of control. Now we know the importance of early detection.”

While not a fish-eating species like the lionfish, the rabbitfish does have some venomous spines and could affect native species by depriving resident herbivores of aquatic food sources. “We determine what the fish is and assess it’s potential for becoming a problem invasive,” Stokes said. “If it is, then we go and grab it.”

REEF Director of Special Projects Lad Akins, Stokes and two REEF interns spot found the rabbitfish in about 15 minutes, but needed most of an hour to bag it among the maze of underwater structures. The fish measures between 6 and 7 inches long.

The rabbitfish was captured alive and delivered to staff at the Gulf Stream Aquarium at the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science, a new Miami facility expected to open within a few months. The onespot rabbitfish will serve as an example of invasive species that could upset the South Florida marine ecosystem.

REEF staff has worked on invasive-fish issues for more than 20 years, starting with the live capture of Pacific orbital batfish from a Key Largo reef (the batfish were put on display at the New England Aquarium). The response team increased its efforts in 2007 due to the lionfish threat.

Florida divers who see a suspected invasive species are asked to fill out an exotic-species reporting form at the REEF website, www.reef.org/programs/exotic/report.

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Kevin Wadlow: 305-440-3206

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