Is this a face only a mother could love? Apparently not, as sailfin suckermouth catfish (Pterygoplicthys disjunctivus), like the one pictured, are breeding in such numbers they threaten the health of the rivers in which they live. Native to the Amazon basin, these catfish are exotic to waters in the South, such as the Blue Spring basin in north central Florida where this specimen was captured in late April.
Working on a story about Stetson University’s environmental programs, photographer Courtland Richards and I were at Blue Spring to photo biologists from the school who captured this scourge of Blue Spring. The biologists, Drs. Kirsten Work, Melissa Gibbs, and student Mary Sheldon Boney, are part of an effort to study and perhaps rid the river of these exotic fish. A few of these sailfin catfish – which are often referred to as “armored,” because, well, they are – probably outgrew their tanks and were dumped in waters linked to Blue Spring. It’s believed they were purchased in pet stores, perhaps mistaken as the pleco fish. Because they have few, if any predators, and because the habitat here suits them so well, their population has exploded, denuding the banks of plant life and competing with native fish for food.
The fish looks much fiercer than it actually is. It has no teeth to speak of, but its scales are as hard armor plating and can cut the bare hand. Kirsten and Mary Sheldon caught and handled the fish with gloves. Still, an impressive feat, considering Kirsten ran the fish down in the river, grabbed, and swam about a hundred yards with it in her hands.
For more on Blue Springs see the Florida State Parks’ Web site.