4.5. Non-native Aquatic Species

4.5.1. Description

The invasion and spread of non-native, or “exotic,” species is currently one of the most potent, urgent, and far-reaching threats to the integrity of aquatic ecosystems around the world (NRC 1995; NRC 1996b; NRC 2002; Ruckelshaus and Hays 1997). Non-native species can simply be defined as “any species or other biological material that enters an ecosystem beyond its historic, native range” (Keppner 1995).

Protection from and management of aquatic species occurs at the federal and state levels. At the federal level, impairment by invasive species is not recognized under the Clean Water Act (ELI 2008). USACE in Jacksonville leads invasive species management with the Aquatic Plant Control Operations Support Center and the Removals of Aquatic Growth Program. The U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services is charged with protection from invasive species (ELI 2008).

In Florida, management of invasive species is coordinated by Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission’s Aquatic Plant Management Program. In 1994, Florida Department of Environment (DEP) included a TMDL water body impairment category of “WEED-exotic and nuisance aquatic plants density impairing water body” (ELI 2008).

However, DEP has yet to develop a TMDL for this category. FWC regulates import of vertebrate and invertebrate aquatic species, Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) contributes to prevention of invasive species with importation regulation. Water management districts also contribute with control and restoration programs (ELI 2008). Non-profit organizations, such as the First Coast Invasive Working Group, organize invasive species removal events and education outreach.

4.5.2. Significance

The transport and establishment of non-native aquatic species in the St. Johns River watershed is significant due to a number of ecosystem, human health, social, and economic concerns. Ecosystem Concerns

“Generalizations in ecology are always somewhat risky, but one must be offered at this point. The introduction of exotic (foreign) plants and animals is usually a bad thing if the exotic survives; the damage ranges from the loss of a few native competing species to the total collapse of entire communities” (Ehrenfeld 1970). The alarming increase in the number of documented introductions of non-native organisms is of pressing ecological concern (Carlton and Geller 1993). This concern is supported by the evidence that non-native species, within just years of introduction, are capable of breaking down the tight relationships between resident biota (Valiela 1995). Once introduced, exotic species may encounter few (if any) natural pathogens, predators, or competitors in their new environment.

The non-native plant Hydrilla verticillata is the #1 aquatic weed in Florida. Native to Asia, hydrilla was likely introduced to Florida in the 1950s (Simberloff et al. 1997) and has spread through the Lower St. Johns River Basin since at least 1967 (USGS 2015). Even the smallest fragment of hydrilla can rapidly grow and reproduce into dense canopies, which are poor habitat for fish and other wildlife. Hydrilla is a superb competitor with native species by monopolizing resources and growing throughout months of lower light (Gordon 1998). Huge masses of hydrilla slow water flow, obstruct waterways, reduce native biodiversity, and create stagnant areas ideal for the breeding of mosquitoes (McCann et al. 1996).

Eutrophic conditions due to excessive nitrate conditions can contribute to proliferation of H. verticillata in historically oligotrophic waters (Kennedy et al. 2009). In an aquaria experiment with low and high nitrate treatments (0.2 and 1.0 mg nitrate per L, respectively), H. verticillata more than doubled its weight in the high nitrate treatment (547 g dry weight) as compared to the low nitrate treatment (199 g dry weight). By comparison, the native species Sagittaria kurziana and Vallisneria americana did not have a significant difference in weight despite the addition of nitrates. This study suggests that H. verticillata will outgrow native aquatic plants as nitrates continue to increase (Kennedy et al. 2009).

A number of non-native herbivorous fish are altering native ecosystems in the Lower St. Johns River. Many of these fish are common in the aquarium trade and include the Eurasian goldfish (Carassius auratus; which commonly becomes brown in the wild), Mozambique tilapia (Oreochromis mossambicus), African blue tilapia (Oreochromis aureus), South American brown hoplo (Hoplosternum littorale), and a number of unidentified African cichlids (Cichlidae spp.) (Brodie 2008; USGS 2015). Additionally, several species of South American algae-eating catfish commonly known in the aquarium trade as “plecos,” including the suckermouth catfish (Hypostomus sp.) and vermiculated sailfin catfish (Pterygoplichthys disjunctivus) appear to be established in the Lower St. Johns River (USGS 2015). As most aquarium enthusiasts know, “plecos” are extremely efficient algae eaters, and, when released into the wild, can have profound impacts on the native community of aquatic plants and animals. Recently, the vermiculated sailfin catfish has been eradicated from the Rainbow River following removal of 28 individuals by hand and spear, demonstrating that early removal of invasive species is possible (Hill and Sowards 2015).

Urbanization can contribute to the altering of flow regimes and water quality in the LSJRB (Chadwick et al. 2012) that may enable invasive organisms to survive. As compared to rural streams where the flow is typically intermittent, urban streams may have perennial flow due to irrigation, leaky sewage tanks and perhaps storm water that was not diverted to retention ponds. The invasive clam Corbicula fluminea contributes significant biomass in two urban perennial streams (Chadwick et al. 2012). Rangia cuneata was also common on silt-sand substrates near Sixmile Creek and northward in the main river channel to near Cedar River (Mason Jr 1998) Human Health Concerns

Non-native aquatic species can negatively affect human health. Some non-native microorganisms, such as blue-green algae and dinoflagellates, produce toxins that cause varying degrees of irritation and illness in people (Hallegraeff et al. 1990; Hallegraeff and Bolch 1991; Stewart et al. 2006). During the summer of 2005, large rafts of toxic algal scum from Lake George to the mouth of the St. Johns River in Mayport, Florida, brought headline attention to toxic bloom-forming algae. The organisms responsible for this bloom were two toxin-producing cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) species: the cosmopolitan Microcystis aeruginosa and the non-native Cylindrospermopsis raciborskii (Burns Jr 2008). C. raciborskii has been recorded throughout tropical waters globally, but appears to be expanding into temperate zones as well throughout the U.S. and the world (Kling 2004; Jones and Sauter 2005). Cylindrospermopsis may have been present in Florida since the 1970s; however, its presence in the St. Johns River Basin was not noted prior to 1994 (Chapman and Schelske 1997; Phlips et al. 2002; SJRWMD 2005). Genetic studies reveal strong genetic similarities between populations in Florida and Brazil, suggesting the two populations continually mix or came from the same source relatively recently (Dyble et al. 2002).

Cylindrospermopsis now appears to bloom annually each summer in the St. Johns River with occasionally very high concentrations in excess of 30,000 cells/mL (Phlips et al. 2002). During the intense bloom of 2005, the Florida Department of Health released a human health alert recommending that people avoid contact with waters of the St. Johns River, because the toxins can cause “irritation of the skin, eyes, nose and throat and inflammation in the respiratory tract” (FDOH 2005). This public health concern will likely continue to menace the Lower St. Johns River Basin in the foreseeable future, particularly when the water becomes warm, still, and nutrient-rich: conditions favorable to the formation of algal blooms Social Concerns

In general, many non-native species reproduce so successfully in their environment, that they create unsightly masses that negatively impact recreation and tourism. Such unsightly masses, as those created by water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes) or hydrilla (Hydrilla verticillata), also shift the way we view and appreciate the aesthetic, intrinsic qualities of our aquatic ecosystems Economic Concerns

Excessive fouling by successful non-native species can lead to economic losses to industries. In 1986, the South American charrua mussel (Mytella charruana) caused extensive fouling at Jacksonville Electric Authority’s Northside Generating Station on Blount Island, Jacksonville, Florida (Lee 2012a). The charrua mussel probably hitchhiked to the St. Johns River in the ballast water of a ship from South America and continues to persist in the area as evidenced by collections in Mayport, Marineland, and the Arlington area of Jacksonville as recently as 2008 (Frank and Lee 2008). Other non-native fouling organisms identified in the St. Johns River include the Asian clam (Corbicula fluminea), Indo-Pacific green mussel (Perna viridis), and Indo-Pacific striped barnacle (Balanus amphitrite). Cleaning these fouling organisms from docks, bridges, hulls of boats and ships, and industrial water intake/discharge pipes is time-consuming and extremely costly.

Just as importantly, yet often overlooked, non-native species can be serious nuisances on a small scale. They foul recreational boats, docks, sunken ships, and sites of historical and cultural value. Clean-up and control of aquatic pests, such as the floating plant water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes), can have high economic costs to citizens, not only in taxpayer dollars, but in out-of-pocket money as well.

4.5.3. Data Sources

Numerous online databases containing non-native species reports were queried. The most comprehensive listing of species is maintained in the Nonindigenous Aquatic Species (NAS) database of the United States Geological Service. Resources to investigate distributions of non-native plants include EDDMAPS, USDA, and the Atlas of Florida Vascular Plants. Additional records and information were obtained from agency reports, books, published port surveys, and personal communication data.

4.5.4. Limitations

We expect that many more non-native species are found within the LSJRB, but have not been recognized or recorded, either because they are naturalized, cryptogenic, or lack of the taxonomic expertise to identify foreign species, subspecies, or hybrids.

A naturalized species is any non-native species that has adapted and grows or multiplies as if native (Horak 1995).

A cryptogenic species is an organism whose status as introduced or native is not known (Carlton 1987).

4.5.5. Current Status

The current status is rated as UNSATISFACTORY. Approximately 87 non-native aquatic species are documented and believed to be established in the LSJRB (Table 4.9). Non-native species recorded in the Lower Basin include floating or submerged aquatic plants, molluscs, fish, crustaceans, amphibians, jellyfish, mammals, reptiles, tunicates, bryozoans, and blue-green algae (Table 4.9). Freshwater species represent >65% of the species introduced into the LSJRB. Non-native aquatic species originate from the Central and South America, the Caribbean, Asia, and Africa (Table 4.9).

Table 4.9 ThumbnailTable 4.9 Non-native aquatic species recorded in the Lower St. Johns River Basin.






4.5.6. Trend

The cumulative number of non-native aquatic species introduced into the LSJRB has been increasing at an exponential rate since records were kept prior to 1900 (Figure 4.25). This trend is the reason that the category is assigned a CONDITIONS WORSENING status – indicating that non-native species are contributing to a declining status in the health of the St. Johns River Lower Basin. For this reason, the current status has been assigned as unsatisfactory.

Column chart – cumulative number of non-native aquatic species introduced into the Lower St. Johns River Basin, Florida since the turn of the 20th century.
Figure 4.25 Cumulative number of non-native aquatic species introduced into the Lower St. Johns River Basin, Florida since the turn of the 20th century.

Non-native plants and animals arrive in the St. Johns River watershed by various means. Common vectors of transport have been humans, ship ballast consisting of water and/or sediment, ship/boat hull fouling, and mariculture/aquaculture activities. For example, JAXPORT imported >18,000 50-pound bushels of oysters (JAXPORT 2017), which have the potential to carry non-native organisms. One of the most widespread ways that non-native species arrive in Florida is when people accidentally or intentionally release exotic aquarium plants or pets into the wild. Such releases not only violate state and federal laws but can have devastating impacts on native ecosystems and native biodiversity.

4.5.7. Future Outlook

IRREVERSIBLE IMPACTS. Once a non-native species becomes naturalized in a new ecosystem, the environmental and economic costs of eradication are usually prohibitive (Elton 1958). Thus, once an invasive species gets here, it is here to stay, and the associated management costs will be passed on to future generations. Since the early 1900s, taxpayer dollars have been paying for ongoing efforts to control the spread of invasive non-native aquatic species in the St. Johns River. Currently, the FWC has imposed a temporary executive order to limit importation of species considered to be listed as Prohibitive Species (full list provided by FWC 2019e) and is working to develop rules for nonnative species import permit applications and potential additions to the Prohibited Species list (Segelson 2018).

HIGH RISK. There is a high probability that future invasions of non-native aquatic species will continue to occur in the LSJRB. Human population growth in northeast Florida is projected to more than double by 2060 (Zwick and Carr 2006). Significant vectors for transporting non-native organisms are imported products and ship ballast, and these vectors are expected to contribute to the likelihood for additional and potentially more frequent introductions.

The number of ships visiting the Port of Jacksonville has increased since 2002 (Figure 4.26) with a 12% increase since 2017 (JAXPORT 2018). The Asian container trade with 19% growth from 2016 and represents 40% of total cargo container business (JAXPORT 2017). The port reported a record number of 1.27 million containers being moved through the port and more than any other container port in the state of Florida (Figure 4.26). On average, 77.8 ±1.2 cruise vessel calls were recorded between 2013-2018. The port is planning to expand its auto and vehicle handling capacity by 25% and looks to take advantage of channel dredging to 47 ft (JAXPORT 2017). Approximately $100 million in federal funds have been awarded to JAXPORT to deepen the first 11 miles of the St. Johns River to 47 feet. Deepening of miles 3-11 will occur this year (Robinson 2018), despite the potential for increase in storm surge (Bauerlein 2018).

Figure 4.26 Number of containers and cargo ships calling on Port of Jacksonville, FL (JAXPORT) terminals between fiscal year 2013 and 2018. Fiscal year (FY) begins Oct 1 (JAXPORT 2019).
Figure 4.26 Number of containers and cargo ships calling on Port of Jacksonville, FL (JAXPORT) terminals between
fiscal year 2013 and 2018. Fiscal year (FY) begins Oct 1 (JAXPORT 2019).

Additional invasions into the Lower St. Johns River Basin are expected from adjacent or interconnected waterbodies. For example, 19 non-native aquatic species not found in the LSJRB have been recorded in the Upper St. Johns River Drainage Basin (USGS 2015). These species may disperse into the LSJRB. In addition, 85% of living non-native plants that are received into the U.S. come from the Port of Miami (ELI 2008).

Rising global temperatures may also contribute to a northward expansion in the range of non-native species from Central and south Florida. For example, the old world climbing fern and Cuban treefrog were recorded in St. Johns and Duval counties in 2016, species spreading from southern Florida (CISEH 2014). There is concern that the Cuban treefrog can spread as tadpoles in fresh and brackish water with ~80% survival at 12 ppt and were able to survive 14 ppt for up to 24 hours (Johnson and McGarrity 2013). The habitat for the most northern record of Cuban treefrog tadpoles was described as ponds created after Hurricane Matthew (CISEH 2016). Hurricane Irma also helped spread the species (Stepzinkski 2019). The frog is known to eat native species green and squirrel treefrogs, lizards, and snakes (Stepzinkski 2019). Gilg et al. 2014  studied dispersal of the green mussel near the Matanzas, St. Augustine, and Ponce de Leon Inlet. Mussel spat density was positively correlated with temperature and likely to be correlated with phytoplankton availability. Larvae settled within 10 km of source population located in the Intracoastal Waterway. The authors suggest that populations at the mouth of the SJR may be connected to the more southern populations due to transport along the coast, but that persistence is due to localized recruitment (Gilg et al. 2010).

Invasive species are often caught by local recreational fishers and researchers. A predatory redtail catfish was caught in Clay County from a local pond (News4JAX 2015). The aquarium fish was likely released and can reach 80 kg in weight (News4JAX 2015; USGS 2015). A foot-long Asian tiger shrimp was netted in July 2015 (FCN 2015). In addition, significant numbers of tilapia and sailfin catfish were collected within 10 km of the mouth of Rice Creek (Gross and Burgess 2015). Other species raising concern is the Muscovy duck that can transmit disease to and can interbreed with Florida’s native waterfowl (FWC 2014c). In addition, the Black and white tegu has been observed in Avondale and have the potential to enter gopher tortoise holes for mice and tortoise eggs (JHS 2014; CISEH 2015).

Given the devastating impacts of lionfish on coastal communities, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission have waived the recreational license requirement if using designated spearing devices and have also waived bag limits harvesting lionfish (FWC 2014a). To date, lionfish have only been recorded off shore of northeast Florida and not in the SJR; however, they are known to eat commercially and recreationally important species of black sea bass and vermilion snapper (Stepzinkski 2019). Johnson and Swenarton (2016) developed a length-based age-structured model for lionfish from >2,000 individuals caught by spear fishermen off the coast of northeastern Florida in 2013-2015. The authors reported that larger lionfish are culled, or are moving to deeper waters. Recruitment events are occur during early summer, and growth rates are much greater than recorded from their native ranges (Johnson and Swenarton 2016). In 2016, Patrick McCarver and Dan Lindley had harvested 1,266 of the 3,478 lionfish speared from the month-long Fifth Annual Northeast Florida Lionfish Blast (NFLB 2017). In the 2018 Lionfish Challenge sponsored by FWC, 28,260 lionfish were removed from Florida waters, with Ron Surrency of Duval County harvesting 5,017 pounds of lionfish (Nalley 2018).

Another point of concern is the public’s lack of knowledge regarding invasive species in Florida. A recent survey by UF/IFAS Center for Public Issues Education in Agricultural and Natural Resources (PIE Center) indicated 62% of 515 Florida residents to be slightly or not knowledgeable of invasive species in general, 63% were slightly or not knowledgeable of the types of invasive species in Florida, and 66% were slightly or not knowledgeable of how to prevent invasions from entering Florida (Dodds et al. 2014). Yet, 79% of respondents were likely to pay attention to a story covering invasive species, with >70% preferring to learn about invasive species from the television, websites, videos, fact sheets, and newspapers. This survey highlights the importance of educational outreach and the interest of the public in learning about invasive species (Dodds et al. 2014).


Water Quality, Fisheries, Aquatic Life, & Contaminants