Cichlids bring brilliant color to an aquarium without the intensive maintenance and cost of a saltwater tank. Cichlids can grow up to 3 feet long and sometimes outgrow their aquariums. Florida's subtropical climate provides an ideal environment for non-native fish to flourish in its waters. Of the more than 1,500 species of cichlids found throughout the world, more than a dozen non-native species now live in Florida's waters.
Escapees and Releases
Most cichlids found their way to Florida's waters when released by aquarists who tired of their pets. Others escaped from aquarium fish farms during flooding into nearby canals and waterways. Species include harmless bottom-feeders such as the firemouth cichlid (Cichlasoma meeki), Mayan cichlid (C. urophthalmus) and redstriped eartheater (Geophagus surinamensis). Less popular with aquarists, the yellowbelly cichlid (C. salvini) threatens native species with aggressive territorial behavior. The popular Jack Dempsey cichlid (C. octofasciatum) is both aggressive and omnivorous, eating other fish and crayfish.
North American Native
Most cichlid species that have adapted to Florida's waters originated in South America. The Rio Grande cichlid (C. cyanoguttatum) made its debut in Florida in an abandoned phosphate pit in Polk County. The species is native to the Rio Grande River in south Texas as well as Mexico. The Rio Grande cichlid eats plants such as algae and fungi as well as insects, protozoans and other fish's eggs. Its hardiness to 41 degrees Fahrenheit enables it to survive even the coldest Florida winters, although it becomes stressed at temps below 60 degrees.
It might seem odd to reel in an oversized aquarium cichlid and fry it up for dinner, but that's exactly what you can do in Florida. The oscar cichlid (Astronotus ocellatus) was first released in the 1950s and has become a popular fish with anglers. Several species of tilapia proliferate in 18 Florida counties and include the blackchin (Tilapia melanotheron), Nile tilapia (T. nilotica), spotted tilapia (T. mariae) and Mozambique tilapia (T. mossambica). Blue tilapia (T. aurea) overpopulate some lakes, threatening native species.
Peacock cichlids (Cichla ocellaris) were deliberately introduced as a recreational sport fish in 1984 by the Florida Game and Freshwater Fish Commission. The fish grow to about 10 pounds, reproduce naturally in more than 300 miles of Florida waterways and bring an estimated $1.4 million of revenue into the state. A closely related species -- the speckled pavon (C. temensis) -- grows at slower rates than ocellaris, reaching weights of up to 30 pounds.
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