Stetson professor and students tackle invasive catfish - FOX 35 News Orlando

Stetson professor and students tackle invasive catfish

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A professor at Stetson University and her students are trying to make the waters safer for our endangered manatees, by getting rid of some pests. 

We caught up with the group one morning as they were spear-fishing in the crystal clear waters of Orange City's Blue Springs.

What biology professor Missy Gibbs and her students are fishing for isn't for fun or for food.  It's for the sucker mouthed armored catfish, which Gibbs says is a threat to the protected manatee.

"It's very satisfying to know that I'm doing a good thing, and helping the manatees," said Gibbs.

The catfish isn't even a native species here in Blue Springs.  It's an aquarium fish, and scientists believe it was dumped in here when the fish either got too big for it's tank or it's owner simply didn't want it any more. 

"It's much better, to deal with it in a humane fashion," Gibbs said.  

Gibbs, the director of Stetson's Aquatic and Marine Biology Program, has been studying the damaging effects of this non-native catfish on the ecosystem for several years. For one, she says the fishes attach themselves to wintering manatees.  It's not just annoying for the manatees, but it can also be harmful to them.

"They'll get much more active and twitchy, and burning more calories, and then have to go out and feed more often in the river, which could put them at greater risk of cold shock." 

Another negative impact is the stringy catfish fecal matter which is filling the springs as the armored catfish population continues to grow.

"We know that Florida springs are experiencing increased number of nutrients over the years due to nutrient runoff things like that, and so the catfish are contributing to that in a big way."

So, armed with Hawaiian slings and a fishing license, professor Gibbs and her students regularly snorkel the entire blue springs on the hunt for the catfish.

Once caught, the fish goes into the canoe, then onto shore, where the Stetson team takes measurements, and collects data for her research about the invader's diet and reproduction system. 

"If we know more about their biology, we can better manage them and have some level of control," Gibbs said. 

Gibbs says she pulls out between 20 to 100 armored catfish each expedition, but that hardly makes a dent in the population of a fish whose female can hold 30,000 eggs.

"And we've found over the years, their reproductive season has expanded, to fit Florida." 

The Stetson scientist and her students continue to spear and study, in hopes of giving protected manatees relief from the armored invader of the springs.


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