Two Exotic Fish Species Removed from South Florida Waters

The Orangespine Unicornfish, native to the Indo-Pacific. Photo by Zach Ransom.
The Lagoon Triggerfish, native to the Indo-Pacific. Photo by Andy Dehart.
The Orangespine Unicornfish, collected from the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
The team of divers from REEF and Frost Science who removed the Lagoon Triggerfish. Photo by Pat Kelly.

In April 2018, two non-native marine fish species were live-captured from South Florida waters, including an Orangespine Unicornfish (Naso lituratus) in Key Largo and a Lagoon Triggerfish (Rhinecanthus aculeatus) in Fort Lauderdale. Both fishes, native to a wide range in the tropical west Pacific, were collected separately through a collaborative effort between REEF, Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science, and the United States Geological Survey (USGS).

These organized non-native species removals are part of an “Early Detection/Rapid Response” plan developed by REEF and the USGS, who have worked together on this initiative since 2008. The goal of the Early Detection/Rapid Response program is to remove non-native fishes as soon as possible after they are seen, before enough fish are introduced to develop a self-sustaining population which could negatively impact local marine ecosystems.

Both fishes were first spotted by citizen scientists who then reported the sightings to REEF. In early April, a group of divers from Eckerd College spotted the Orangespine Unicornfish while diving off of Key Largo during a REEF education program. Shortly after this, a second sighting of the same fish was reported by a local dive instructor, and a formal removal effort was organized to collect the fish. A team of four divers from REEF and Frost Science worked with a local volunteer to locate and live-capture the fish. The removal effort took place in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary under a special research permit.

“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.” acknowledges Andy Dehart, Vice President of Animal Husbandry for Frost Science.

Just a few weeks after the Orangespine Unicornfish was successfully captured, REEF received a report of another exotic species. This time, the sighting was a Lagoon Triggerfish, reported by a Fort Lauderdale resident who first spotted the fish while snorkeling off the beach near Sunrise Blvd. Recognizing the fish was not native to Florida waters, the citizen scientist reported this sighting to REEF and a plan to remove the fish was put into motion. It took six divers from REEF and Frost Science two trips to live-capture the elusive fish. This was the second record of the Lagoon Triggerfish in the United States mainland.

The Orangespine Unicornfish and Lagoon Triggerfish are the eighth and ninth non-native marine fish species removed through the Early Detection/Rapid Response program. To date there have been 37 non-native marine fish species documented off of Florida, and most of those sightings are thought to be aquarium fish that were released into the ocean by humans - the same occurrence that started the lionfish invasion of the tropical western Atlantic.

“No one saw the lionfish invasion coming, and we definitely don’t want to be surprised like that again,” said USGS Fish Biologist Pam Schofield. “Our research with lionfish shows that it is vitally important to remove non-native marine fishes as soon as we see them – before they have the chance to build up a population and spread like lionfish have done.”

USGS and REEF coordinate removals of exotic species and whenever possible the non-native fish are collected alive in partnership with Frost Science, to be displayed at public aquaria for educational purposes. Frost Science has an exhibit dedicated to exotic and invasive marine species including a Blotched Foxface Rabbitfish (Siganus unimaculatus) captured from Dania Beach in late 2016. After a quarantine period, the Orangespine Unicornfish and Lagoon Triggerfish will be added to the exhibit as well.

Anyone who sees a non-native marine fish species is encouraged to submit a report on REEF’s online Exotic Species Sightings Form, available at www.REEF.org/programs/exotic/report. Sightings are then directed to the USGS Nonindigenous Aquatic Species database.

Design by Joanne Kidd, development by Ben Weintraub