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OSCAR IN THE EVERGLADES

(Thanks to the Florida Fishery Commision)

Description - Young fish have wavy white and orange bars and spots on black head, body, and fins. The body and fins of adults are olive blue-green in color with large black blotches. A black spot surrounded by red is at base of upper caudal fin. The second dorsal, caudal, and anal fins are large and rounded. Some have orange or red on body.

Sporting Qualities - They provide a hard-fighting, large panfish type fishery, which is popular with many anglers. They will strike on a variety of live baits and artificial lures. Popular baits include cut fish, cut shrimp, crickets, and worms. Small jigs tipped with cut bait and small spinnerbaits are favorite artificial lures. Fly-fishing is also a productive method.

Eating Qualities - White, flaky meat with good flavor.

State Record - The state record weighed 2.34 pounds and was caught in Lake Okeechobee.

Subspecies - It is a distinct species with no known subspecies.

Range - The distribution of Oscars in Florida is restricted to the area south of Tampa. The native range of Oscars lies within the Orinoco, La Plata, and Amazon River basins in South America.

Habitat - Marsh-type habitats with man-controlled water levels have the largest Oscar populations although they are found in lesser numbers in most permanent aquatic habitats in southern peninsular Florida.

Spawning Habits - Oscars spawn when water temperatures range between 82 and 91 F. The preferred spawning site is a flat, solid surface parallel or slightly raised off the bottom. The female will lay up to 3,000 eggs and both parents care for the eggs and guard the young.

Feeding habits - Oscars are carnivorous preying on small fish, insects and amphibians.

Age and Growth - An average-sized Oscar caught in the Everglades is 10 inches long and weighs 3/4 of a pound. A two-pound fish is considered large. Biologists do not know how long Oscars typically live.

Due to its sub-tropical climate, South Florida is a haven for many exotic plant and animal species. Most of the exotic species inhabiting Florida originated in either South America, Asia or Africa. There are currently 19 species of exotic fishes occurring in Florida. One of these, the Oscar, Astronotus ocellatus, has come from relative obscurity to become an important component of the recreational fishery of the Everglades. The Oscar is a member of the Cichlid family, which includes the black acara and numerous species of tilapia. Cichlids are popular aquarium species because of their breeding behavior and vibrant coloration. There are 13 members of the Cichlid family currently established in Florida.

The Oscar is native to the Orinoco, Amazon and La Plata River systems of South America. It can be described as having a robust "bream" shaped body, with elongated dorsal and anal fins flowing almost continuously into the caudal (tail) fin. Coloration is generally dark and mottled, with a red eye-spot at the base of the tail. It commonly reaches a length of 12 inches. The Oscar made its way into Florida because of its popularity with aquarium enthusiasts. The species was deliberately released from a fish farm in southeastern Dade County in the late 1950's and became established in the canal system of South Florida. Populations of Oscar remained fairly low to the mid-1980's. Local sport columnists in the late 1950's failed in an attempt to popularize the Oscar as a sport fish, although reports filtered in from time to time of Oscar being caught in various Dade and Broward County canals.

The Oscar population in the Water Conservation Areas (WCA) of the Everglades started to expand around 1985. Oscars were first caught incidentally by bream and bass anglers. Incidental Oscar catches eventually increased to the point that fishermen began to deliberately target this species. During a six-month angler use survey conducted in WCA 2 (1985-86), a total of 6,800 Oscar were harvested by anglers. From 1986 to 1990 the Oscar population in WCA 2 appeared to peak, and then started to decline. The current "hot spot" for Oscar is in WCA 3, with the two most popular fishing spots being the L-67A Canal and the Miami Canal. The current angler use survey in L-67A Canal shows the importance of Oscar to the recreational fishery of the Everglades. It is the number one species caught; the number two species fished for (behind largemouth bass), and has the highest catch rate at 4.34 Oscar per hour. An estimated 91,000 Oscar were caught from December 1991 through May 1992, with 60 percent of those harvested. Most fish range between 7 and 12 inches in length, and may weigh up to 2 pounds.

The Oscar is mainly carnivorous, feeding on small fish, crustaceans and aquatic insects. They are commonly taken along canal vegetation on a wide variety of artificial lures and natural baits including small jigs, flies and plastic worms, as well as live crickets and cut bait. Catches of 50 to 100 Oscar per day are not uncommon.

The Oscar is one of many species in the Everglades found to have elevated mercury levels in their tissue. The public has been advised to limit consumption of Oscar (8-ounce portion) to no more than once per week for a healthy adult, or once per month for children under 15, pregnant women, nursing mothers, or women who want to become pregnant.

The reasons for the recent increases in Oscar populations after inhabiting these waters for so many years are unclear. Other questions that need to be answered include food preferences, habitat selection, and reproductive potential and how Oscar impacts other species. It is hoped that current and future studies will help shed some light on this species in the Everglades. Meanwhile, the Oscar provides an important sport fishery for many south Florida anglers.




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