Armored catfish causing problems, chewing up South Florida lakes

Repairs can cost $1 million, contractor says

SUBURBAN BOYNTON BEACH, Fla. - A pesky burrowing fish that has no natural predator is wreaking havoc in South Florida.

The armored catfish eats away at local lakes, contributing to erosion that can steal more than 10 feet off the water's edge.

Someone even tried spearfishing in a desperate effort to eliminate them, according to one resident of the Royal Lakes community west of Boynton Beach.

"There are some people who get totally upset, and I can understand why," said Ralph LaPrairie, a fisheries biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

There are some quick fixes, including installing wire mesh or spike rush, a dense aquatic plant. "But that's not 100 percent foolproof," LaPrairie warned.

There are more reasons than one to take on this fish fight.

"One, it's a safety issue. Two, it's a curb-appeal issue," said Chip Sollins, owner of Lake Erosion Restoration, a contractor in Boca Raton.

Any permanent solution carries a hefty pricetag, as the small community of Royal Lakes is discovering. Hiring a contractor would cost as much as $100,000, and an assessment to pay for it likely would spark controversy.

"If we do nothing, I think eventually we're going to end up with a sinkhole," said Susanne Ury, president of the Royal Lakes Homeowners Association.

Erosion in neighborhood lakes comes from fish, but also from the typical causes. Wind pushes waves against the sides, water gushing from downspouts washes away earth and when high water receeds, it carries the sand away with it.

But the surest and fastest culprits are armored catfish, a non-native tropical species that LaPrairie guesses numbers in the millions in South Florida. They eat algea and dead organic matter.

Perhaps the only thing that eats them is ospreys. But even the birds don't really care for armored catfish — because they actually are armored, with modified scales along their backs and spikey fins. Plus, they aren't very meaty, LaPrairie said.

For homeowners, the worst characteristic is their habit of pocking the sides of lakes with 18-inch-deep holes, about three or four inches wide. That's where they lay their eggs.

Those holes are traps for unsuspecting residents strolling near the water.

"It creates a spongy effect to the property," said Joe Criscuolo, vice president of the Royal Lakes Homeowners Association.

The cost to prevent erosion and deter the fish can run to $1 million for large communities, said Sollins, the erosion contractor. His company reinforces lake edges with concrete-like sandbags re-covered with sod. A mesh "fish grid," as he calls it, deflects the catfish.

As erosion becomes apparent in aging developments, his customer base is growing. He now has 35 bids out, he said, and competes with at least three other companies.

In Royal Lakes, a 15-year-old development with two lakes and 165 homes, the cost is a sticking point for some. The community would need to find money in reserves, loans or an unpopular assessment.

Most residents, such as Joan Brunswick, don't even live by a lake. She acknowledges the need, but balks at the expense.

"People are not wanting to pay this," she said.

 

Copyright © 2012, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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