It’s been a particularly ugly beginning to 2021 in so many respects, particularly the weather. As of Friday, 70 percent of the United States was covered in snow and only three states in the lower 48 — Florida, Georgia and South Carolina — didn’t have any snow on the ground.
South Carolina, for all I know, is doing dandy. Georgia has an unfortunate Senate situation. And as for the southernmost of this trio, the state which gave us the Florida man is now giving us the Florida fish.
To be fair, it’s not actually a fish from Florida. The Arapaima originally hails from the Amazon river and has apparently become an invasive species in Florida’s Caloosahatchee River. That said, there’s nothing more Floridian than a 200-pound heavily armored “river monster” that can grow up to 10 feet swimming in a local waterway.
According to a WBBH-TV report from last Friday, a woman in Cape Coral, Florida, found the massive fish dead while walking in Jaycee Park the previous weekend.
She snapped a picture of the fish and put it on her Facebook, which is where she found out what it was.
“It was bigger than my 7-year-old. He’s not a small kid. I was like that’s nothing I’ve seen before. It was kind of white with a pinkish tail,” Leah Getts told WBBH.
“It had a huge kind of like open bass kind of looking mouth. It didn’t look like anything I’d heard of or seen before.”
“They were saying it was an Arapaima, and I looked at pictures and it was dead on,” she added.
If you look closely, you can see that the dead fish still had a hook in its mouth — but other than that, how it died or got to the United States in the first place remains a mystery.
While no invasive species is good news, most people’s familiarity with the Arapaima — to the extent it exists at all — comes from the Discovery Channel show “River Monsters.” That alone should explain why this is an unpleasant development.
“In the wild, the arapaima eats mostly fish but is also known to eat fruits, seeds, insects, birds and mammals found on the surface of the water,” the Smithsonian National Zoo’s entry on the Arapaima reads.
“In order to eat, they use a ‘gulper’ feeding strategy: by opening their large mouths they create a vacuum that pulls in nearby food objects. Their tongues and sharp, bony teeth, combined with the teeth on the roof of their palates, allow them to debilitate and shred their prey.”
John Cassani, an ecologist with Calusa Waterkeeper, said he found the appearance of the mega-fish worrisome.
“I was pretty surprised initially to see a species I hadn’t seen before in Florida waters,” Cassani told WINK-TV.
“Some people think it’s one of the largest, if not the largest, freshwater fish in the world. They can get up to like 10 feet, weigh a couple of hundred pounds at least, and they can leap out of the water at great heights.”
Once Getts found out what the fish was, she was understandably skittish: “They’re kind of incredibly scary when you look at the videos of them. They’re very very aggressive, and having small children makes you a little nervous,” Getts said.
So, is the fish a threat? It depends on who you ask. Cassani worries that one dead Arapaima means others are in the Caloosahatchee River or elsewhere.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission conducted a study that found Florida’s waters were too cold for the Arapaima to survive in, even when they factored in warming from potential climate change. Cassani says he’s not sure that’s still the case, though.
“This risk study done on Arapaima was done close to 10 years ago,” he said to WBBH.
And while fishermen may like a new, massive species in the water, it’s not a great bet environmentally.
“Obviously a big aggressive predatory fish is popular amongst anglers. But the risk to the ecosystem far outweighs the recreational value of the species,” he added.
Both Cassani and the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission agree that the fish was likely dropped in the river by someone, according to WINK, although whether there are more of them or if they could survive is another question entirely.
Thankfully, there are ways to mitigate any crisis. In other states, if there’s an invasive species, residents are often given free rein to go after them — as is the case with feral hogs, a deadly nuisance in many parts of the Southwest.
In Florida itself, a program to hunt invasive snakes in the Everglades captured nearly 4,000 Burmese pythons by last November. Thus, even if the fish gains a foothold, there’s the opportunity to control the population.
Of course, that still doesn’t eliminate the fact that an aggressive, enormous armor-plated fish with razor teeth and an impressive leaping ability is the most 2021 thing that could happen to Florida. It may be better than snow on the ground for right now, but it remains a grim potential sign of a wildlife conservation nightmare in the making.
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