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Report: SF Bay Area is entryway for potentially harmful aquarium creatures

The San Francisco area serves as a gateway for various aquarium dwellers that could endanger California waters, including the San Francisco Bay, according to a report released Wednesday to the California Ocean Protection Council.

Is the lionfish a potential hazard to California’s aquatic life?
Christian Mehlfuhrer

The report, prepared by the University of California, Davis, indicates that more than 11 million non-native “ornamental” water creatures — such as tropical fish and snails — representing more than 100 species are imported each year through the San Francisco and Los Angeles areas. Most of the creatures arrive from Indonesia and the Philippines.

Thirteen of those species have found their way into California waterways, apparently after being dumped from aquariums, the report said. The report cautioned that 69 percent of these species have successfully made themselves at home in California, potentially threatening aquatic ecosystems. The threat: Some foreign species can spread quickly and fight native species for food and habitat.

Susan Williams, lead author of the report and an evolution and ecology professor at UC Davis, noted that relatively few aquarium species have made their way into California waters. Still, she said, the creatures that do enter the state’s aquatic system “are highly successful because they’re grown to be hardy and robust.”

At least 34 species of aquarium creatures could survive in California’s waters, the report found.

One potential aquatic invader is the highly predatory lionfish, which regularly enters the state’s ports, bound for home aquariums. On a single day last March, 20 lionfish were imported into San Francisco International Airport, the report said. Lionfish haven’t been reported in California waters, but the fish can endure cooler temperatures. In fact, lionfish could establish themselves in the San Francisco Bay if dumped into the water.

“Aquarium hobbyists can follow some simple practices — like ‘Don’t dump your aquarium’ — to avoid releasing aquarium species into natural water, where they can become an expensive and harmful pest,” Williams said.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), lionfish are popular inhabitants of U.S. aquariums. They’re native to coral reefs in the tropical waters of the South Pacific and Indian oceans, but NOAA says they’re “rapidly invading” the Caribbean Sea and the tropical Atlantic Ocean.

“Due to their population explosion and aggressive behavior,” NOAA says on its website, “lionfish have the potential to become the most disastrous marine invasion in history by drastically reducing the abundance of coral reef fishes and leaving behind a devastated ecosystem.”


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