Shane's World Right Arrow SpeciesRight Arrow The Pleco Egg Collectors of Florida

Article © Ingo Seidel, uploaded April 09, 2013.

All images by the author

To see plecos in the wild today you needn't travel to South America. Nowadays, these fish turn up in tropical and sub-tropical regions in nearly all parts of the world. Having seen these interesting armoured catfish in diverse biotopes in my travels to South America, this year I visited Florida to see the absolute epitome of the pleco, Pterygoplichthys pardalis, in one of its new-found habitats.

A few years ago in travels to North America I met Mike Drawdy, owner of Imperial Tropicals Fish Farms in Lakeland, Florida. Mike is a passionate pleco enthusiast, breeding many L-numbers on the farm he took over from his father a few years ago. At that time large numbers of plecos were bred on the farm in the months of April to September. Since then, it has proved much more economical for farmers like Mike simply to purchase spawn from fishermen who collect eggs from the surrounding rivers during the spawning season. When I heard this from Mike I knew I wanted to see this spectacle first-hand. He arranged a pleco 'egg hunt' with him for the coming season in Florida. In June 2010 I arrived in Florida with my friends Stephan Tanner and Steve Lundbald to meet up with Mike. While June is not exactly the ideal time of year for a trip to the Sunshine State (it's warm and humid) we were naturally stuck with this time of year since the high temperatures and the rainfall are the very factors that induce the pleco spawning season we were there to witness.

On the 20th June Mike met us at 5am at our hotel. His boat in tow, we set off to Six Mile Creek, the main area of pleco spawn collection east of Tampa in Florida. There, we'd arranged to meet up with two professional spawn collectors who regularly supply Mike with Pterygoplichthys eggs, a pursuit as profitable for collectors as as it is for farmers.Collectors earn between three and five dollars per spawn, depending on maturity. The more developed the spawn, the more money it brings in, since there are fewer complications to deal with in raising them compared to freshly laid eggs with a long way to go. In a good day - and in 2010 there were some - both collectors were successful and collected 100 spawns: an average earning of about $400. According to Mike, there used to be several teams of collectors here at Six Mile Creek because the demand for plecos was enormous a few years ago. More recently though, sales have dropped off as the US has slowly realised (later than Europe), that Pterygoplichthys is not the ideal aquarium fish. But even today, umpteen-thousand plecos are bred every year in Mike's fish farm alone. The sale of pleco eggs is much more profitable for the farmer than for the collector. According to Mike, for around four dollars the farmer can buy up to 2,000 Pterygoplichthys eggs in a clutch, and, despite the cost of incubation, that's lucrative business.

Mike told us that at the peak of the pleco trade in the USA, many collecting teams would work Six Mile Creek and he'd buy up to 200 spawns a week. Because of the competition, relations were often difficult and, again and again, one team would boycott another and there could even be (quite serious) conflict. Since then though, the situation has relaxed because of the fall in demand. Now only a few collectors make their main living from the seasonal collection of pleco eggs.

On our arrival at Six Mile Creek, signs warned us not to get into the water because of alligators, but that was exactly what we intended to do if we wanted to collect spawn. Mike assured us that alligator incidents happened only very rarely. In all the years he had been buying pleco spawn, he had only heard of one serious incident where an alligator had grabbed a collector by the head, leaving him seriously injured. Even so, collectors always work in pairs so that one can help the other in an emergency. Somewhat reassured, we set off and put the alligators, surfacing all around us but mostly very small, to the back of our minds.

Sunrise at Six Mile Creek, Florida.
There were particularly numerous spawn holes to be found in this section of Six Mile Creek.
Professional spawn collectors at work.
The boat is equipped with many oxygenated boxes and egg keeping containers.
Mike has dived down to remove a spawn from its hole.
The dive was successful; Mike holds a spawn in his hand.

Professional spawn collection and keeping
When we arrived and met the collectors they already had lots of spawn in their collection store. The spawns were sorted by maturity and kept in synthetic containers aerated by battery-operated air pumps. In the containers of the most mature eggs, the young had already hatched out of their first yolk sacs. The water in the containers had to be repeatedly exchanged for fresh. The early morning hours are used for collection for a reason; from midday onwards, Six Mile Creek becomes unbearably hot — too hot to store the spawn at the river.

Two spawns at different stages of maturity. What a size!
We pulled this adult male pleco out of his spawn hole.
On this dive we found young already developed.

The collection of pleco eggs is fairly straightforward even for a novice diver. The river here is roughly 1.5 metres deep in its widest areas. I was able to establish the following water parameters in Six Mile Creek (N2°00'53.3" W081°21'00.2"): Water temperature 30.1°C; pH 7.7; electrical conductivity 425µs. The male plecos dig oblique or slanting channels into areas of suitable, somewhat loamy subsoil which holds up against collapse pretty well. This was a great surprise to me. In South America, I had only ever been able to find pleco spawn holes in the dry season at low water levels in the river bank. The fact that the holes were dug slanting into the soil was news to me. The holes can reach over 50cm depth into the soil. Quite simply, you feel for the holes with your foot. When you feel one, you dive down and put your hand deep into the opening. If successful, you'll feel a soft spawn (up to the size of the palm of your hand) at the end of the passage. You simply grasp it and bring it up to the surface. Astonishingly, you'll rarely find a breeding male in the hole. Pleco fathers seem to spend a lot of time away from the spawning site even during the incubation period, and you'll encounter resistance only in the rarest cases. However, Mike told me that it actually did happen to him: as he proudly held a spawn in his hand that he'd removed from a hole, it was swiftly snatched back from him underwater by a catfish. The indigenous Amerius species obviously like to eat the spawn.

The spawns are kept in ventilated ice boxes to protect them from the heat.
These are newly hatched young.
The eggs must be constantly supplied with fresh water in situ.

Introduced Plecos have numerous natural enemies
Within about five hours, our group had gathered 100 spawns between us in a 200 metre section of river, demonstrating how abundant plecos must have been previously in six Mile Creek. The haul was all the more astounding since the winter of 2009/2010 had been extremely cold, so much so that in Florida fish farmers themselves had complained of huge losses in breeding ponds. Clearly, low temperatures hadn't particuarly harmed the pleco in Florida. In the breeding season apparently unbelievable numbers of young are produced; necessary in view of the many natural enemies. The young are a favoured food of perch-like predator fish like Sunfish(Lepomis spp.) or the gluttonous Trout Perch (Micropterus salmaides). But catfish like Ameiurus melas, Ameiurus nebulosus and Ictalurus punctatus are common in Florida, and in many places are able to feed on the swarms of young. Water birds like the three-coloured heron (Egretta tricolor), as well as alligators will take the larger fish both very often found in these waters. It's no accident that this pleco species produce such a great number of young.

The common tricolour heron (Egretta tricolor) are keen fish eaters.
One of the most gluttonous predators in Florida is the trout perch (Micropterus salmoides).
Sun perch like Lepomis marginatus can more dangerous to the young than anything.
The numerous alligators can crack the armour of even the largest Plecos.

Incubation and raising of eggs in the breeding farms
Just a few hours after our trip to Six Mile Creek, we were able to see the professional handling of these eggs on Mike's breeding farm. In a polytunnel, the spawns were transported into numerous well oxygenated concrete tanks, roughly 2m long by 1 wide. They were carried in synthetic vessels which at home we would usually use to sieve the water from potatoes or noodles. These round sieves had a lot of slits and floated on the surface of the water as they were aired from below. The effervescence from the attached air hose kept the spawns in constant motion. Mike added Acriflavine to the breeding tank which kept the water's bacteria count low to combat fungal infection. We saw only very few white, dead eggs in the spawns, nor did these rot or endanger the healthy eggs. I was able to establish the following water parameters. Temperature 27°C; Ph 7.2; Conductivity 400µs.

The Imperial Tropicals fish farm in Lakeland, Florida.
The fish are reared in poly tunnels.
Breeding tanks for the pleco spawn and young.
The eggs are kept floating in aired containers like these.
Still very fresh spawn in breeding container.
This spawn is on the brink of hatching.

In the following days the young hatched little by little from the spawn, still with yolk sac attached for the time being. After five days the last, presumably those from the freshest-laid spawn at the time of collection, had hatched. About another seven days would pass until they had completely consumed their yolk sacs which the young would normally have spent still in the care of the males in the spawn hole. At this point the fish were taken to large outdoor ponds where they could grow on until large enough to sell. One problem is, however, that the spawning season in Florida only lasts about five months while the fish are in demand all year round. Some small young are therefore fed significantly less so that they grow much more slowly and only reach maturity at a time of year when there is no supply. Naturally this must inevitably have an effect on the health of the fish.

Thousands of freshly hatched young in the breeding tank.
Once the young are well fed and are stable, they are moved promptly to outdoor ponds.
One of the many outdoor ponds for breeding young.
These young, which have been fished out of the tank, are large enough for sale.

Plecos are today a definite part of the fish fauna in Florida
Pterygoplichthys pardalis has, in recent times, become ubiquitous in Florida and I was able to see these fish in extremely varied habitats. On the way from Lakeland to Miami I found a wastewater ditch on the street and the stagnant water in it seemed to be teeming with these fish. Numerous large specimens lay at the edge while fish in the middle of the ditch repeatedly rose to the surface of the water for oxygen as the water was clearly lacking it.

P. paradalis, however, would appear to be not the only Pterygoplichthys that you can breed in the south of the USA and see in its rivers. In the shop/warehouse of the firm Seacrest in Florida, one of the biggest fish wholesalers in the world, I was able to see huge numbers of juvenile Pterygoplichthys ambrosetti, the Snow King, previously known under the name of Pterygoplichthys or Liposarcus anisitsi. Apparently, this species is also bred or raised in Florida. In earlier visits to the USA, I also saw fish in shops that (for me) were hybrids of P. paradalis with P. multiradiatus or P. disjuntivus. This is not surprising, since the whole these pleco species are not distinguished in USA and would be very easy to cross.

Newly laid eggs
Two day old eggs
Four day old eggs
Newly hatched fry
One day old fry
Two day old fry
Three day old fry
Four day old fry
Five day old fry
Six day old fry
Week old fry
Three week old juvenile

There is further information on this species on the Cat-eLog page.

Hits: 13125

Back to Shane's World index.