Family competes in annual roundup of non-native fish in Collier waterways
Murky water turned clear in a shallow part of a canal, exposing exotic fish taking shelter near a sunken dock.
"We have to stay here," said Brianna Wallace, 11, to her older cousin, Steven, 23, who was maneuvering a small boat in search of non-native fish species, particularly Mayan cichlid, on Saturday morning.
Brianna stood at the stern of the boat and cast out into the water. Steven followed suit from the bow. The duo wore polarizing sunglasses that helped them get better views beneath the surface.
Minutes later, Brianna reeled in a large Mayan.
"She's the best fisherman I know," Steven Wallace said of his cousin, who knows her way around the canal that runs between homes near Golden Gate Community Park.
She's no stranger to Mayans.
Since the mid-1990s, the fish species has become common throughout southern Florida’s freshwater lakes and canals, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Mayan cichlids are olive-brown to beige with a red-orange belly. The species often is found in the warm tropical waters of Florida, but they are native to South and Central America.
This species was just one of many exotics reeled in by local fishermen and women during the annual non-native fish roundup hosted by the Southwest Florida Cooperative Invasive Species Management Area (CISMA). The organization hosts two annual roundups, in Collier and Lee counties, to raise awareness about the harmful effects of releasing non-native fish into local ecosystems and to collect data about non-native fish distribution.
On Friday and Saturday, three teams and one individual reeled in hundreds of pounds of non-native fish from their favorite freshwater spots across Collier County.
Brianna and Steven Wallace dubbed themselves the Mayan Maulers. Brianna's father, Bryan, and sister Sierra, 8, also were members of the team. They caught fish from a Gheenoe boat on the same canal.
Bryan Wallace, an avid fisherman, said exotic fish can be detrimental to native environments.
"Mayans, or any non-native fish, compete for nesting areas and native fish resources," he said.
After hours under the hot sun, each team brought in their fish to get weighed at Sugden Regional Park in East Naples on Saturday evening.
The Mayan Maulers came in second, with a little more than 111 pounds of fish. The winning team brought in 153 pounds.
The Wallace family congratulated the winning team and said they were happy to do a good deed while doing what they love.
Steven Wallace, who lives in Tampa, grew up on the water, spending many of his days fishing.
"I love the calmness of it," he said. "Of course, there's a lot of excitement too. The feeling when that first fish hits, it never gets old."
The annual event is a partnership between CISMA and several wildlife-related organizations, including the FWC and the Conservancy of Southwest Florida in Naples.
Jeffrey Schmid, environmental research manager with the conservancy, said he is working with a team to figure out how exotic fish such as Mayans affect the local ecosystem.
"The Mayans specifically are very prolific around here and may be able to displace a native fish, given their aggressive behavior," he said. "So we're looking at the Mayans' diet and trying to figure out how they compete with natives."
Most of the collected fish, all non-poisonous, will be taken to the Naples Zoo to feed animals.