9 Investigates

9 Investigates the effects of invasive species in Florida

ORLANDO, Fla. — It’s been almost 90 years since the Cuban tree frog accidentally made its way the 90 miles from Cuba to Florida, and it still hasn’t left.

The Cuban tree frog if one of thousands of plants and animals that are not native to Florida but that have, in the last two centuries, made the state their home.

“Florida has a perfect climate and with this perfect climate they find themselves right at home,” said herpetologist James Peters.

While the Cuban tree frog does not have a recognizable economic impact, it does disrupt the natural habitat by competing with native animals for food and even eating native Florida frogs.

Another invasive species, the monk parakeet, makes its nests on transformers. Florida Power and Light spends about $1 million every year removing the birds and fixing damaged transformers.

“They are tremendously destructive on the habitat that they inhabit,” said Peters.

Off the Florida coast, another specie, the lionfish, has made its way into the ecosystem.

In a recent paper, the nonpartisan Florida TaxWatch sounded the alarm for what the lionfish is doing to the state, writing that the lionfish “devours native fish and competes for food with native predators, and represents a threat to several important industries in Florida, including sport and commercial fishing, and to the health of coral reefs and the biodiversity in our waters.”

In the last year, divers have begun holding derbies to catch the lionfish. Some of the captured fish are delivered to restaurants, where trained chefs can remove the poison quills and prepare the fish.

While animals such as the Cuban tree frog, the lionfish and the Burmese python in the Florida Everglades catch most of the attention as invasive species, it is plants that have the greatest economic impact.

“It’s a matter of scouting, monitoring and controlling them as they come up,” said Dr. Patrick J. Bohlen, the University of Central Florida's director of landscape and natural resources and arboretum.

Bohlen and his staff handle the 1,400-acre campus, which includes 900 acres of natural lands. The university spends about $45,000 each year to maintain the ecosystem and remove invasive plants.

Statewide, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spent $17.9 million fighting invasive plants in 2016 $9 million of which was spent on hydrilla alone.

Hydrilla, an aquatic plant, kills aquatic life by blocking sunlight. It also clogs waterways and creates a mosquito breeding ground.

“We spend 10 times as much money controlling invasive plants as we do animals,” Peters said.

In addition to its own eradication efforts, the FWC has set up a hotline for people to report invasive and non-native species. The number is 1-888-483-4681.

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