Sailfin catfish eating away lakefront yards in Florida


Mar 11, 2001
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Catfish eating away at yards in W. Boca lakefront community.

By Merle Augustin, Sun-Sentinel.

Posted September 24 2001

Kevin Herbold is having a tug-of-war in his backyard lake, and the sailfin catfish have the edge.

“When we stepped on the grass ... your foot would go into holes and there was a catfish burrowing in there,” said Herbold, whose shoreline has dwindled from 12 feet to five feet. “I worried the edge would get so deep, down to the water that it would start falling into bigger sections, and my pool would be the next thing to go.”

The male sailfin catfish burrow under the lake’s bank with their tails to build nests for their mates. But the tunnels have eaten away at the shoreline of three homeowners at Southwind Lakes, west of Boca Raton. It’s a problem they’ve battled since at least October.

Now the Southwind Lakes Homeowner’s Association, worried about the loss of land along the six lakes at its 32.7-acre development, is out to get the fish — or at least push them away from the banks.

“You come and answer my calls from irate homeowners, and you’d want [the catfish] dead, too,” said Sherry Scarborough of Property Assessment Consultant, the development’s management company.

The sailfin catfish, a herbivorous fish native to Latin America, was introduced illegally into South Florida’s water system in the 1950s. They grow to 20 inches and like to burrow for nests under rocks, logs and vegetation. Lacking that, they burrow under sod, taking the land with them.

Typically, they are used in aquariums to keep the glass clean by eating the algae.

In their search for a solution, the association called a lake management company and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to the rescue.

A first attempt in October to dislodge the fish by putting in rocks to barricade the shore failed.

“They moved right to it,” said Scarborough.

It turned out Southwind Lakes isn’t the only one battling the sailfin catfish.

“This is actually a problem throughout Broward and Palm Beach County,” said Steve Weinsier, president of Allstate Resource Management, who surveyed the development for erosion.

“We had five calls this year about catfish and one call last year. It’s increasing as the fish population spreads. They’re very prolific,” said Weinsier.

Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologists said the top reason for the problem is many developments’ desire for pristine lakes.

“They have these very aquarium-looking ponds, and they use chemicals and grass carp to control the vegetation,” said biologist Kelly Gerstring, who said the agency would prefer to see more natural methods such as aquatic plants being used. Instead of making their homes in the lake edges, the catfish could use the plant beds.

“It makes habitat for all the fish, improves the overall ecology and, in my opinion, improves the lake look of the lakes. It looks more like a natural lake than a sterile pond,” said Gerstring.

Scarborough said aquatic plants are expensive and that the catfish didn’t appear interested in the ones growing in the lake.

But for now, Southwind Lakes has a two-fold attack plan.

The lake tunnels near Herbold’s home will be filled with rip-rap — dry cement bags dropped under the yard’s sod that will harden into rocks when wet. They will be topped with sand to restore the banks and create a barrier.

“We want to get done as soon as possible. If we have a hurricane and have these tunnels, we’re going to lose a lot more land,” said Scarborough.

If it works, the development might even expand the rip-rap barrier to all six lakes.

Scarborough said that the homeowner association would pay the $6,000 needed to refill the three properties’ eroded back yards.

Once that’s done, Herbold plans to go head-on with the fish.

“I’ll control the catfish one way or another,” said Herbold. “I’ll either net him or go down there and bellow a bit. It gets me in trouble at home, but it seems to work other places,” he joked.

Should the rip-rap barrier or Herbold’s bellowing fail, Gerstring has another solution.

“They could probably trap them,” said Gerstring. “They’re a very popular food fish. People eat them. I’ve eaten [them] before and they taste good.”

Merle Augustin can be reached at or 561-243-6522.  
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