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Watching manatees gather in the crystalline waters of Blue Spring is one of Central Florida's outdoor treasures.
Increasingly, however, it's been a bit of a creep show: manatees are being sucked on by dark, plated, spiny and air-breathing invaders.
Blood - Flesh - Fish - Manatees - Animals
Rather than gorging on blood or flesh, the fish are eating algae growing on manatees, but that still freaks out and endangers the big animals, which is a key reason for the start of another season of hunting and killing the sailfin suckermouth catfish.
"You can see a manatee with 20, 30 or 40 catfish on it at the worst," said Melissa Gibbs, a mostly serene biology professor at Stetson University, who has mastered wreaking devastation on the exotic fish with a 7-foot, three-pronged, barb-tipped spear.
Gibbs - Manatees - Winter - Refuge - Blue
Gibbs explained that manatees seek winter refuge at Blue Spring near DeLand, escaping the colder St. Johns River.
There is no food for them in the spring and its stream that flows a third of a mile to the St. Johns River.
Calm - Energy - Animals - Spring - Waters
By staying calm and conserving energy, the animals can remain in spring waters for long periods before having to slip into the perilously chilly river to forage.
"The catfish aren't physically, directly damaging manatees," Gibbs said. "They annoy the heck out of them. And if manatees are twitching and moving around, they are burning calories."
Harassment - Manatees - Prone - Stress - Gibbs
"The harassment by the catfish indirectly affects the manatees that are then more prone to cold stress," Gibbs said.
Having studied the exotic fish for two decades, she thinks their numbers and the threat they pose are greater than ever.
Remedy - Gibbs - Others - Hunts - Place
One remedy being applied vigorously by Gibbs and others are early-morning hunts taking place now that the manatee winter season at Blue Spring is over.
Wielding her weapon, Gibbs brings a hunter's focus and, perhaps most importantly for someone with a doctoral degree in neurobiology, research-supported clarity for wanting...
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