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Eeeeek! The eels are coming

These slimy, beady-eyed immigrants are slithering toward the Everglades. Scientists fear they may be to that ecosystem what Godzilla was to Tokyo.

By JEFF KLINKENBERG

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 15, 2001


MIAMI -- Before I tell you about creepy swamp eels with ravenous appetites and a reputation for a certain mayhem -- swamp eels that could wreck a unique world treasure -- you should know I grew up on the edge of the Everglades.

My dad liked to fish. We'd drive to the glades in that faded blue Nash, park in the weeds and cast our lines in canals that connected Miami's coast with the swampy inland.

We caught largemouth bass, bluegill and chain pickerel. We landed warmouths, speckled perch and brown bullheads. We never caught any of those mystery eels said to devour everything in their path, including, by one questionable account, small boys.

In 1974 -- long before the eels showed up -- my brother and I were fishing in our backyard canal when he reeled in a fat green fish unlike any we'd seen. A state biologist identified our prize as an oscar from the Amazon basin. He said somebody had probably bought the fish as a pet, tired of it, and flushed it down the toilet.

Our canal belonged to a system of canals that stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to the deepest glades. It was like a highway for fish. The presence of exotic fish in our particular highway did not bode well for the canals, rivers, lakes, swamps and forests known collectively as the "River of Grass." Last thing an already troubled ecosystem needed was an alien fish to compete with the natives.

But as years went by, the number of exotic fish multiplied. Now catfish from Africa crawl out of the water and creep through the grass after dark like soldiers sneaking up on an enemy. A marine toad from the tropics hops onto your back porch and wolfs down the dog's food. When doggie objects with a hearty bite, doggie dies of toad poisoning.

A frog from Cuba eats native frogs. Pythons from Asia eat whatever they can catch. Monkeys from Africa chatter from gumbo limbo trees. Parrots from Honduras screech from the palms. Iguanas from Central America sun themselves on beaches. Armadillos from the American Southwest root through the underbrush for tasty beetles.

Remember those ugly brown catfish from your aquarium? Armored catfish from South America suck algae off the glass. In the average fish tank, they grow to a couple of inches. They are now well established in certain Florida waters. I once caught a two-footer that looked like a dragon.

South Florida's newest invader, a truly slippery customer, has the scientific community worried as never before. In its destructive potential, this monster is every bit as scary as the villain from that sci-fi flick Alien.

That monster was make believe. The Asian swamp eel is several ugly feet of absolute fact.

Hide the children

"We're looking for a chink in their armor."

Biologist Leo Nico, a burly man in his 40s, is talking about the Asian swamp eel, South Florida's newest -- and some say most threatening -- alien resident ever. Nico is showing me around his lab in Gainesville, where he works for the U.S. Geological Survey, which monitors water and woods throughout the land. Alien fish, especially the swamp eel, are his meat.

He hands me a clipping from the wacky tabloid Weekly World News.

"Nothing can stop them!" shrieks a headline. "Every American is in peril." The accompanying story says eels are running amok all over America and eating small children, old folks in wheelchairs and even friendly family dogs.

"Thank God I wasn't quoted in that story," Nico says.

Okay, so the eels don't prey on pooches or people.

But they are bad enough.

The 3-foot, olive-brown eels have no natural Florida enemies. Always hungry, they eat minnows, tadpoles and insects -- the food supply of native fish, reptiles, amphibians and birds. Like a few other aquatic species, they start out as males and turn into females, ensuring the survival of the species. In South Florida's mild climate, they reproduce all year. They protect their young more aggressively than do the native fish.

Scientists have tried to remove eels from Florida waters with extreme prejudice. Swamp eels seem undaunted by explosives, which kill by rupturing air bladders of normal fish. Poison? Forget it. Swamp eels poke their heads out of the water and breathe air. Drain the pond or lake? Even if it were practical, swamp eels would slither away after dark -- slither across dry land -- and look for a new, wet home.

So far, no eels have been discovered within Everglades National Park. But they have been apprehended in nearby canals. In the spring, biologists will try to kill as many as possible in the canal closest to the park. Electrocution will be the weapon of choice.

Scientists are pessimistic that slaying even hundreds of eels a week will do much good.

"But we've got to try," Nico says.

Experts can only guess how the eels got here.

Florida is headquarters for the nation's tropical fish trade. In 1997 Nico found the first swamp eels in a ditch near a Manatee County tropical fish farm. Then others were found in South Florida. For years, it has been illegal to release non-indigenous fish into Florida waters, but some people ignore the law or don't know about it.

Nico says it is also possible that swamp eels were released on purpose by folks who like to eat eels. Considered a delicacy in parts of Asia, swamp eels occasionally are sold at markets in Miami.

"I haven't tried eating eel," Nico says. "But I have a recipe."

Dozens of species are found in the swamp eel family. Some live in Asian tropical jungles. Others live in China highlands. Unlike most animals, they can tolerate extremes of temperature.

"That means they could spread throughout the United States," Nico says.

A small population was found in a pond near Atlanta. Nobody knows how it got there.

If eels find their way into the grassy part of the Everglades, they'll have landed in heaven. They'll eat minnows, fish eggs, insects and small amphibians -- the basic food chain. If something threatens, they'll hide in the grass. In a drought, they'll burrow into the mud and tough it out.

Nico, in an experiment, stored a live eel away from water for a month without food.

"It did just fine."

Slimed by an eel

I love the Everglades, a system that begins in a chain of lakes near Orlando and meanders south along the Kissimmee River, through Lake Okeechobee and the Shark River Valley marsh before spilling into the 1.5-million acre Everglades National Park at the very tip of Florida.

Home to mangrove mazes, spectacular cypress swamps and wet prairies that stretch to the horizon, it's the wild heart of Florida. I've been lucky enough to touch the rarest large animal in North America, the Florida panther. I've chased black bears and examined a crocodile nest, snorkeled with manatees and canoed past alligators.

Now Leo Nico invites me on my first swamp eel hunt.

We meet at dawn in a South Florida suburb that once was part of the Everglades. Now, after decades of development, it's within cheering distance of Pro Player Stadium, where the Florida Marlins and the Miami Dolphins play.

What could be eel paradise is less than a mile from where I lived as a teenager, where my little brother and I caught that first wayward oscar. Our old canal happens to be connected to the canal Nico wants to survey. Snake Creek, as it is called, runs about 20 miles to a bigger canal that slices through the deepest Everglades.

Nico has assembled a team of scientists, researchers and volunteers to help. They'll be sampling the canal by electroshock. Stunned by strategically placed electricity, the fish should surface, confused. Scientists will net them, haul them ashore and start counting. Nico promises my first glimpse of a wild swamp eel.

He knows I'd love to see a piranha, too. They have been encountered in South Florida waters, but in low numbers. There is no record of reproduction.

Nico studied piranhas in South America. Handling them, he got nipped on fingers. A colleague had a chunk ripped out of a leg.

Even if they don't savor human flesh, Asian swamp eels scare him and colleagues just as much.

"We're very nervous about them," says Bill Loftus, an Everglades National Park biologist for nearly two decades. "We don't want to be alarmists, but we just don't know what will happen if these animals get into the park. Maybe nothing. But maybe a lot.

"We see the Everglades as a house of cards," says Loftus, who now works for the USGS. "The house of cards looks stable, but we don't know just what it'll take to make it fall apart. The eel could be that animal."

In their native lands, swamp eels don't overwhelm the environment. Everything is in balance; birds, animals and reptiles have evolved to eat them. Natural parasites weaken them and diseases kill them.

None of those exist in South Florida.

The electroshock boat ventures out and cruises the bank of the canal. The electrodes, hanging from poles, look like the business end of a giant mop -- strands of wire that drape into the water. The boat captain taps a pedal and releases 800 volts. Off the bow, fish twirl in unison. Nico scoops.

On the bank he dumps his catch into containers. He has stunned a handful of native largemouth black bass and bluegill. He'll return them safely to the water. But most of the creatures he harvests originated in foreign lands.

Assistants search the containers for eels -- and find them. They range from a foot long to 4 feet. Round and muscular, they prove almost impossible to hold. Live wires, they seem unhappy to be separated from their canal.

"I just got slimed!" cries a helper, hands dripping with mucous. "I can't hang on."

"Don't drop the eels into the grass!" Nico shouts. "We'll never get them. They'll slip right back into the canal."

A mustachioed technician dons a butcher's smock. He clips a small portion of each eel's tail and hands it to Tim Collins, a geneticist from Florida International University. Collins, who studies DNA, recently discovered that the Snake Creek eels originate from Vietnamese, Malaysian and Indonesian stock.

Warming to the task, the butcher commences lopping off heads. In Gainesville, he'll remove ear bones; rings in the bones suggest an eel's age. Eel bodies go into other bags. Stomach contents will be studied, too.

So goes the day. The boat goes out and returns. Fish are counted and identified. Somebody reaches into a bucket and withdraws a discarded baby doll.

"That's what's cool about South Florida -- you never know what you'll come up with," says a scientist.

"They found a body in a car here last week," another helper says.

The scientists turn up no corpse resembling Jimmy Hoffa. But they have struck a mother lode of swamp eels.

On one small stretch of canal -- one canal among hundreds down here -- Leo Nico and friends harvest 50 eels. He would rather have found Jimmy Hoffa.

Someone asks if I'd like to hold a swamp eel.

I'm not squeamish. I've baited hooks, gutted fish, plucked ticks off my skin. A swamp eel is like any living creature, just trying to survive.

But why here?

I take one look at that slimy, dripping body, I gaze into those beady soulless eyes, and shake my head no.

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