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Florida's Asian Swamp Eel

Wayne Willison

Photo: Wayne Willison

I GREW UP ON THE EDGE OF THE EVERGLADES AND HAVE spent much of my career writing about them. I've been lucky to touch a Florida panther, examine crocodile nests, swim with manatees, and canoe past alligators.

A half-century ago, my dad and I liked to drive into the Everglades in his faded blue Nash, park in the weeds, and fish for largemouth black bass, catfish, and bluegills. True, we kept our eyes open for water moccasins and gators, but at least they belonged here.

When Leo Nico invites me on an eel hunt, I have mixed feelings that include both curiosity and revulsion. To my dismay, his hunting grounds turn out to be Snake Creek, a canal where my brother and I used to fish as teenagers. The waterway is within cheering distance of Pro Player Stadium, where the Florida Marlins and the Miami Dolphins play.

I watch Nico and a dozen researchers climb into a boat outfitted with an electroshock fishing unit. They use electrodes, hanging from poles like strands in a mop, to zap the water with 800 volts of electricity. When the dazed fish surface at the bow of the boat, twirling in unison, Nico scoops them up with a net.

On the bank, he dumps his catch into a variety of containers. He has stunned a handful of native largemouth black bass and bluegills, which he returns to the water alive. But much of his catch, creatures now reproducing in south Florida, originated in foreign lands.

Assistants scour the containers for eels. They don't have to look long. Round and muscular, the wriggling creatures are almost impossible to hold. They don't bite; they simply slither and squirm in their efforts to escape. "I just got slimed," cries a helper, hands dripping with the mucus that the eels excrete. "Don't drop the eels into the grass!" Nico shouts. "They'll slip right back into the canal."

A mustachioed lab technician dressed in a butcher's smock clips a small portion of each eel's tail and hands it to Tim Collins, a geneticist from Florida International University. Collins, who studies eel DNA, recently discovered that the Snake Creek eels originated from Chinese stock.

Warming to the task, the technician—after anesthetizing the eels—commences lopping off their heads and tossing them into a black plastic bag. Back in his Gainesville laboratory, he'll remove ear bones; rings in the bones can indicate an eel's age. The bodies are put in separate bags so the stomach contents can be studied to determine what the animals have eaten.

During the course of the day, the boat goes out once more and returns; fish are counted and identified. Somebody reaches into a bucket and withdraws—gasp, a human infant! No, just a discarded doll. "That's what's cool about south Florida," one scientist quips. "You never know what you'll come up with."

The dominant fish among all nonindigenous creatures in this catch is the Asian swamp eel. In one small section of canal—one canal among hundreds in south Florida—Nico's squad harvests 50 eels.

"We see the Everglades as a house of cards," says Bill Loftus, a USGS ecologist who has worked in the national park for two decades. "The house of cards might look stable, but we don't know what it'll take to make it fall apart. The eel could be it."

In their native lands, swamp eels don't overwhelm their environment. Everything is in balance; a variety of birds, animals, and reptiles are their predators. Natural parasites weaken them; diseases commonly kill them. But here in south Florida, apart from the occasional alligator, large fish or great blue heron, the eels have no enemies—at least none that scientists know about.

In a few months, Nico will bring his Gainesville team back to south Florida. They'll try to kill as many eels as possible in the canal nearest the park. Electrocution will be their weapon of choice, but the scientists are pessimistic that slaying even hundreds of eels a week will do much good. "Still, we've got to try," Nico says.

TOWARD DAY'S END, SOMEONE PULLS A YARD-LONG EEL from a bucket and asks if I'd like to get better acquainted.

I'm not squeamish. I've baited hooks, gutted fish, waded in thigh-deep mud, and plucked ticks from my own flesh. A swamp eel, after all, is like any living creature, just trying to survive.

But why here?

I stare at its slimy, dripping body, gaze into those beady, soulless eyes, and shake my head no.

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