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What kudzu should have taught us about tilapia

When folks back in 1883 first introduced kudzu to the southern United States, they had noble intentions. The kudzu vine served a lot of purposes from shading patios to erosion control and as vittles for cows. At the time, bringing it here seemed like a good idea.

But as we all now know, kudzu’s reputation morphed from fame to infamy in less than a century, with the plant that was once recommended by the Soil Erosion Service eventually being relegated to the Federal Noxious Weed List in 1997.

Now kudzu (a.k.a. the vine that ate the South) covers millions of acres in the southeastern United States, rendering areas impassable for anything but billy goats or bulldozers.

Apparently Georgia lawmakers have not thought about  kudzu lately. They seem to have forgotten that introducing non-native species into ecosystems does not always turn out as expected.

While the kudzu problem is not life threatening, it is ample evidence that legislators should not tinker with nature. If you need more, consider the numerous nature shows about Burmese Pythons––former pet snakes now over-running  Florida.

Ignoring this potential for troublesome results, a  bill is being considered under the Gold Dome that would open our state for tilapia farming. The bill would legalize stocking of the non-native tilapia fish in farm ponds and would classify tilapia as a domestic species. This effort turns a blind eye to history and places our waters and native fish at unnecessary risk while likely gaining but little benefit.

Four state senators introduced the bill. One was John Wilkinson of Toccoa, who told reporters he spearheaded the legislation, because there were constituents interested in raising tilapia in their ponds. Apparently, bass in ponds stocked with tilapia grow larger. Assumedly, they bulk up on small fry tilapia.

We’re sure having a bigger bass to hang over the sofa could reel in some bragging rights for sport fishermen, if everything goes as planned. But what are the chances stocked tilapia will stay inside the ponds? Environmental groups such as the Georgia River Network aren’t buying it. They (and we) think the natural world is too unpredictable to control, and we say don’t take that chance just for bigger trophy fish.  Remember the  movie, Jurassic Park, and Jeff Goldblum’s line just after he realized the dinosaurs were mating and reproducing? He said, “Life will find a way.” Well, we think tilapia will find a way just as other invasive species in the South have, species such as Chinese privet and mimosa trees.

What happens if our waterways flood and tilapia make their way from farm ponds into Georgia’s rivers and streams? Ecologists say tilapia mate in warm waters, and the species is fast growing, that they breed rapidly and can withstand poor water quality. On its website, The Georgia Rivers Coalition cites a study out of the University of Georgia that found tilapia will survive temperatures above mid-50 degrees Fahrenheit, meaning the species can “live in 8 out of 10 south Georgia winters and in any spring-fed portion of a river or warm water discharge.”

Tilapia also like to dig, which could create brackish water and threaten plant and animal species that need more light to thrive. Tilapia are even listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's 100 of the World's Worst Alien Invasive Species list, and some ecologists call them the “kudzu fish.” To us, bringing them here sounds like a pan-fried recipe for disaster.

While the consequences are not certain, introducing tilapia here has the potential to threaten native Georgia river fish like crappie and bream and Redbreast sunfish. The chance of producing bigger bass is just not worth the risk. The bill has already passed the Georgia Senate and needs approval from the House before it becomes law, so encourage your representative to vote no to SB 360.