According to the most authoritative source in Florida (this magazine, Florida Sportsman), at least 13 species of non-native fishes of the cichlid family have set up housekeeping in South Florida over the past 40 years or so. And all of them are doing very well, thank you.
Out of that baker's dozen, 12 simply got dumped into our waters by accident or as unwanted fish-farm surplus, and started fending for themselves with immediate success, paying no attention at all to the frantic objections of environmentalists, and gurgling in laughter at the sporadic attempts of state biologists to effect their extermination.
The only one of the 13 cichlids to be deliberately introduced was the peacock bass. Few anglers today have any idea of it, but that little job entailed a bit more effort than just dumping a bucket of fry into the nearest canal. In fact it took the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission more than 25 years to get the peacock bass solidly established-a full quarter of a century of research, experimentation, disappointment, abandonment and, at long last jubilation.
The wait was worth it, for not only has the peacock bass become a new and celebrated gamefish, but its presence has served to restore the battered image of the Game Commission in regard to alien species. Quite aside from its recreational benefits, the predatory peacock, as its forces steadily strengthen, is beginning to make at least some inroads on those other cichlids of South Florida-those unwanted populations of lesser species that the Commission was once accused of not doing enough to prevent and, in some cases, even unwittingly abetting.
Not that the peacock bass project itself was without criticism. Verbal from the ecological community abounded as the Commission first began experimenting with the strange fish early in 1963, when their personnel stocked several ponds at Miami lakes Country Club with fingerlings.
Hardly an angler in America had even been aware that such a fish existed until angling editor A. J. McClane , just a few years earlier, fished for them in Venezuela and published soul-stirring accounts of his adventures with them in Field & Stream. Even more mouth-watering were his photographs-picturres of a huge, humpbacked fish that vaguely resembled a largemouth bass but was much bigger and colored like a tropical forest. McClane referred to the fish as pavon-naturally enough, since that was its name. In English it translated to "peacock," and the "bass" was tacked on later (probably by the Florida experimenters, although I really don't recall) in an effort to make it sound even more appealing to bass-crazy Americans.
One of the many anglers stricken with peacock fever was Tom McBroom of Miami, and, as a GFC commissioner, he happened to be in position to do something about it. He huddled with Everglades Region Manager Lou Gainey and biologist Vern Ogilvie, and the first Florida Peacock Bass Project was born.
When he planted those first fish at Miami Lakes, Ogilvie was admittedly doubtful as to their prospects of spawning in Florida, but his doubts were quickly abolished. In less than a year and a half they spawned twice, and by May of 1964, some of the original peacocks were pressing three pounds.
At that point I was personally called upon to help in the research-or at least that's how McBroom put it, although he might have had ulterior motives, one of which was a small interest in publicity. My job, if I chose to accept it, would be to participate with 10 or 12 other anglers in a test of the "fishabiIity" of the exotic transplants at Miami Lakes. In the name of science I accepted, and joined, among others, McBroom, Gainey, Ogilvie, taxidermist Joe Reese and Al McClane himself, who by then had learned to say "peacock bass" and had been made a consultant in the project.
With such an array of angling talent at work, the "test" went swimmingly. By the time it dawned on us that the viability of the proposed new fishery didn't really need proving we had caught 220 peacock bass ranging in weight from 1 to 2 1/2 pounds all of which Ogilvie gathered into a large tank for replanting into other ponds.
Despite having been used in such a shameful way to thin out that one pond in order to stock others, all of us angling advisors huddled afterwards and came up with the unanimous opinion that the peacock bass demonstrated very obvious likes and dislikes in the way of artificial lures-they refused to strike any lure that stayed in our tackle boxes but loved every one that was thrown into the water.
Publicity on the peacock bass project ran rampant after that, besieging the Commission with demands from two competing quarters. On the one hand, many freshwater anglers began screaming for the immediate introduction of peacock bass into all Florida waters from Pensacola to Homestead. On the other, biologists from academia began screaming for an immediate end to the project.
Florida was not yet feeling the serious effects of exotic fish interlopers, but the long and unhappy history of irresponsible introductions throughout the world had many scientists viewing the Miami Lakes goings-on with a leery eye. One was Luis Rivas, a widely respected ichthyologist at the University of Miami, who told me that the Commission was "playing with fire."
"I'll grant that those fish are well managed," he grumbled. "But that's no assurance they won't be prematurely introduced by accident to the major water systems of Florida. A hurricane or tornado could do it. I've known tornadoes to suck up fish and deposit them many miles away unharmed. Freakish! Sure. But it has happened before and it can happen again."
Rivas, like other scientists, was deathly afraid of what might happen to native fishes and, indeed, to the aquatic ecology in general. In cases where the largemouth bass-another large predator-has been introduced outside its native range, it has reproduced at a fantastic rate, upset the ecology of the water, and eventually has been forced into cannibalism, wiping itself out as the last leg in a vicious chain of events. There have even been tragic human side effects-epidemics of insect-borne disease that resulted from the annihilation of small fishes that formerly controlled the insect larvae."
Rivas probably noticed that I turned pale as he listed the potential horrors. Anyway he ended the interview with a note of reassurance: "Yes, they might find a niche and live harmoniously with native species. But the risks far outweigh that slim chance."
Well, anyway, I thought we didn't have to worry about the peacock killing off the small fishes that control mosquito larvae. Another accidental introduction from the fish farms-called Belonesox-was already reported to be taking care of that little chore by gulping down all the larvae-eating Gambusia minnows in the Eveglades.
The Commission had to weigh the scientists' concerns against the attitude of the angling community at large; particularly some of the bass guides on Lake Okeechobee, who had perked up their ears upon hearing Ogilvie muse that the peacock bass might someday thrive throughout the Deep South. Experiments aimed toward that goal were then taking place in Georgia and Alabama, as well as Florida.
One old-time guide asked me when peacocks would be coming to the Big O. I suggested that we should first find out if they would be harmful to the well-being of native largemouths.
"Largemouth be damned!" he exploded. I say plant the peacocks and be done with it. If they're bigger and purtier, let them at the bass. Who cares?"
Many people cared a great deal, of course, and none more than Ogilvie and his associates on the Game Commission. Like all biologists, Ogilvie could not be trapped into making a flat prediction. Unlike many of his peers, though he viewed a fish as not merely a conglomeration of scale rows and gill rakers but a creature designed for the noble purpose of bending a fishing rod. That attitude played havoc with his efforts to don an academic and non-committal expression when commenting on the future of the fish. His thinly veiled optimism was certainly understandable. The peacocks had taken to South florida like a Yankee retiree and they had reproduced beyond anyone's expectations.
What's more, it seemed that another critical test had been passed when the young peacock bass survived their first extra-cold South florida winter, the winter of 1964-65. Even though the temperature in one pond had dropped on several occasions to 55 degrees in eight feet of water, not a single dead fish was observed. By the end of 1965, experimental ponds in several other South Florida counties were bulging with young peacocks too, and, as mentioned, other states were also experiencing promising results.
Still, Ogilvle remained cautious. Never before in the whole United States had so thorough a pre-introduction study been conducted on an exotic fish, but all concerned with it were determined that their enthusiasm should not turn into rashness. Not even McBroom-no pillar of patience-would yield to the pressure and begin stocking the fish prematurely. But McBroom did tell me, off the record, that he expected stocking to begin the next summer (1966).
Sadly however, there were to be no peacock bass left to stock by then.
One frigid morning in early February of 1966 Ogilvie noticed a number of dead peacocks floating in one of the Miami Lakes ponds. Hurrying to check the others, he found fish floating in all of them. Six months later, only one more peacock bass had been caught in any of the ponds. That one was to be the last of the original Florida line. Not unexpectedly, the peacock bass projects in Alabama and Georgia suffered the same fate that same winter.
To be accurate, it really wasn 't the winter die-off that killed Florida's original project. Ogilvie already had decided that his fish, which had come from Iquitos, Peru, were not of the same big pavon species that McClane had encountered in Venezuela, and in 1965 the Game Commission approved his first expedition to the Orinoco watershed to research the various species. The scientific literature of the time helped little, if any in determining how many members of the genus Cichla there might be.
Ogilvie eventually described four types, which he labeled U1, U2, U3 and U4-the "U" signifying that the specific name was uncertain. I had fished the same area a few months earlier and had observed only three types. My Venezuelan host, Carols Galas, referred to the biggest of the three by two names-pavon (peacock) and zebu (Brahma bull), for the large hump on the back of breeding males. The other two he called mariposa (butterfly), a smaller but more colorful fish; and trucha (trout), an allusion to its slender shape and trout-like markings.
I compared notes with Ogilvie following his return and he informed me that my trucha was simply a juvenile pavon, so I had apparently been catching only two different peacocks in Venezuela. If Ogilvie really had four back then, only two are well known today-in the states, at any rate.
It was in the waning years of the 1960s that Fiorida's first peacock bass erperiment finally came to a peaceful end-scarcely noticed by the public, for the furor had long since faded away. The project was allowed to die for a combination of reasons, not the least of which was the unrelenting opposition that could still be expected from the environmental community.
Ogilvie spent additional research time in South America, however, and in 1973 he became the Game Commission's logical choice to head up a new Exotic Fish Research Lab at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. The facility which focused 15 ponds, was surounded by a 12 foot dike and a 6-foot chain-link fence as safeguards against thievery of its alien biota. Apparently, however, no safeguards were deemed necessary against the fish-transplanting tornadoes that Luis Rivas had been so concerned about.
In the middle of the 1980s, the idea of stocking peacock bass began rising from its own ashes. Much had changed since the earlier experiment. For one thing the aquatic ecology had by then gotten so bad in South Florida that the onetime naysayers in the scientific community had long since thrown up their arms in surrender.
All of the alien cichlids-and other exotics as well-had become so firmly entrenched that there seemed little hope of ever keeping them in check. But up stepped biologist Paul Shafland, who had taken over as head of the Exotic Fish Lab. He thought he just might know a logical biological control-none other than our dearly departed friend, the peacock bass
Everything that had worked against the original program now seemed to be in favor of the new one. For one thing, much of the basic research had been done 20 year earlier. For another, the introduction now could do no more harm to the ecosystem than had already been done. Actually Shafland was of the expert opinion that it might do a great deal of good by throwing a ravenous predator in there among the hordes of smaller exotic invaders.
As for the temperature intolerance that had wiped out the first stocking 20 years before, Shafland's experiments indicated that the deep-cut canals and rockpits of Dade and Broward counties could provide snug havens in which the warm-natured peacocks could survive even the worst of the occasional South Florida freezes.
The same could not be said, however, for any water north of Broward. Even balmy Palm Beach County is occassionally subjected to temperatures low enough to kill any peacock bass that might slip across the county line-via tornado or otherwise-during a string of warm winters. Far from being a detriment to the project the built-in temperature barrier provided Shafland with a guaranteed control against his fish ever straying to waters where they are not welcome. So Shafland's new peacock bass project began in 1984. At first both the butterfly peacock and the pavon (now usually called "speckled peacock") were included in the experiments. it turned out however, that the big speckled variety reproduces so slowly in Florida that it cannot renew itself. Probably there are none left, but if you do catch one, it must be released.
As for the butterfly peacock bass it became a legal catch on July 1 1989 with a limit of two per day, only one of which may exceed 17 inches in overall length. There's little need to elaborate more, since it has since been reported many times by Florida Sportsman and other media that the program is an overwhelming success in every way-financially, recreationally and biologically.
An overwhelming success yes. But not exactly an overnight success.