Non-native Unicornfish Removed from Florida Keys Waters

RELEASE DATE
04/06/2018
CONTACT
Lad Akins, Director of Special Projects
Lad@REEF.org
(305)852-0030

A non-native Orangespine Unicornfish was documented, tracked, and removed yesterday by divers in Key Largo Florida in a collaborative effort between government agencies, a university, non-profit organization, dive shops, a public aquarium and volunteers.

A group of divers from Eckerd College first spotted the popular aquarium fish, native to a broad area of the Tropical Pacific - while SCUBA diving off of Key Largo, Florida, in late March. Notice went out to local dive operators and following a second sighting of the fish by local dive instructor Jesus Gudino on Saturday, plans were put in motion to organize a removal.  The effort, organized through a formal rapid response plan developed by REEF and the USGS, took place in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary under a special research permit.  A team of four divers from REEF and the Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science in Miami, worked with local volunteer Roger Grimes to locate and live-capture the fish from Molasses Reef early Wednesday morning.

This is the fourth record of the species in the US, and it’s unknown how the fish could impact its non-native environment.

“When fish are introduced outside their natural range they have the potential to cause negative impacts,” said Lad Akins, Director of Special Projects for REEF. “If we wait to see what those impacts are, they’ve already occurred and we miss the window for prevention.”

The unicornfish is one of 37 non-native marine fish species documented off of the state’s coast and the 8th removed as part of the REEF/USGS Early Detection/Rapid Response program. Scientists acknowledge the importance of early detection and rapid response in part because of lessons learned from the lionfish, a destructive marine invader, which was first reported off of South Florida in 1985. It soon invaded the Atlantic coast of the United States, Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, with unprecedented, alarming speed.

“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.” 

Similar to the lionfish, the unicornfish also possesses venomous spines. But while lionfish prey on marine animals, unicornfish primarily consume seaweeds and algae. Experts say both fishes likely ended up here through aquarium releases.

 “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.

“We don’t want any more non-native species on our reefs” said Schofield. ”Reef ecosystems are incredibly diverse but also fragile.  And they are already suffering from a slew of insults, including pollution, overfishing and climate change.”

USGS and REEF have worked together since 2008 to detect and quickly remove non-native marine fishes from Florida waters. Sightings come through REEF’s online exotic fish reporting application. This information is funneled to Schofield, who documents non-native marine fish occurrences for USGS’ Nonindigenous Aquatic Species database.

USGS and REEF coordinate the removals and whenever possible the non-native fish are collected alive in partnership with Frost Science and displayed at public aquaria for educational purposes. Frost Science has a dedicated exhibit to exotic and invasive marine species including a Blotched Foxface captured from Dania Beach in late 2016.

If you spot this fish or any other non-native or invasive aquatic species, please report the sighting to the USGS’ Nonindigenous Aquatic Species database.

 

About REEF

Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) is a non-profit organization founded in 1990 that seeks to conserve marine ecosystems by educating, enlisting, and enabling divers and marine enthusiasts to become active ocean stewards and citizen scientists. REEF membership is free and totals more than 60,000 individuals worldwide, who protect marine life through education, service, and research.

Indo-pacific orangespine unicornfish collected live from Molasses Reef in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Credit: REEFIndo-pacific orangespine unicornfish collected live from Molasses Reef in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Credit: REEFOrangspine unicornfish, native to the Indo-pacific. Credit: Zach RansomOrangspine unicornfish, native to the Indo-pacific. Credit: Zach Ransom

Zach Ransom, Senior aquarist with the Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science in Miami, with orangespine unicornfish collected off Key Largo, Florida. Credit: REEFZach Ransom, Senior aquarist with the Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science in Miami, with orangespine unicornfish collected off Key Largo, Florida. Credit: REEF

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