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Published: Friday, 5/18/2012

COMMENTARY

Blue tilapia stars in pond algae war

BY MATT MARKEY
OUTDOORS EDITOR

BRADNER, Ohio -- Diane Spriggs is anxiously awaiting the arrival of some summer guests from Africa. They offer the best hope to keep algae from taking over her pond.

For the third straight year, Spriggs will use blue tilapia, a finned friend with a robust appetite for devouring the green scourge that haunts pond owners, as a natural control mechanism for the algae bloom that is certain to come with warmer weather.

"When it gets hot, we get a lot of algae," said the retired auto worker about the pond on the property near here where she and her husband live.

"The first year we tried the tilapia, we noticed a difference right away."

The blue tilapia will come to this deep, quarter-acre body of water in rural Wood County from a lake in East Africa, via a rearing pond in southern Alabama, by way of a fish dealer in Missouri. In the next week or so, they will arrive by tanker truck at Inspired By Nature, a pond management business near Weston, Ohio, where Spriggs will pick up the fish and transport them to her pond in plastic bags filled with highly oxygenated water.

READ MORE from Matt at the Blade Outdoors blog.

"We hardly had a winter this year, so the algae got an early start. I'm anxious to get the tilapia in there and let them get started working on the algae," she said.

Tilapia are relatively new performers as pond maintenance workers in this part of the country, but they have a position of prestige historically. In 4,000-year-old drawings inside Egyptian tombs there are images of tilapia being raised in ponds. The Nile tilapia was so important that it received its own hieroglyph in that ancient culture.

There are numerous species of tilapia, an equatorial fish that generally resembles a bluegill. What makes the true blue tilapia different, and a star of the seasonal worker ranks in ponds throughout Ohio and Michigan, is its algae-eating ways, and its ability to tolerate water temperatures down to 45 degrees.

Other species of tilapia are much less cold tolerant and would not be practical in this climate belt. But blue tilapia can be stocked in our ponds in late May once the water has warmed to around 60 degrees. They will start on the algae right away, and soon reproduce, with those young tilapia then providing the resident fish population with a rich food source.

What keeps this exotic fish from distant lands from becoming another invasive headache is simply the arrival of fall -- the weather. In Texas and Florida, tilapia have been an established problem, but here, once the water temperature drops to the fifties, the tilapia become lethargic. At 45 degrees, they float to the surface and head for that big pond in the sky.

"They simply won't survive beyond that temperature, so there's no threat of them getting established anywhere in the Midwest or taking over. Cold water kills every one of them," said Rex Rains, the St. Louis area supplier whose stock of pure strain blue tilapia will provide the vegetarian workforce for more than a hundred ponds in this area.

Rains came across the blue tilapia while searching for "a natural solution" to algae problems in his pond. "No species of fish in North America has any effective impact," he said. What began as a hobby quickly turned into a business as word-of-mouth stories of the tilapia's algae control resume spread.

"We really started this at the peak of the downturn of the economy, and we've seen the business triple every year," Rains said of his R&S Ranch, which he said is the sole source of pure strain blue tilapia in the country.

Don Schooner at Inspired By Nature, who urges the use of tilapia as part of an overall pond management formula that includes aeration, debris removal, and control of nutrient levels, said he is seeing close to 90 percent of the tilapia users from 2011 putting the fish to use again this year.

"I'm not a scientist, but there's been much less algae in my pond since we started putting tilapia in a few years ago, and that's the only change we made," said attorney Jim Rogers about his pond, located near Dunbridge, Ohio.

Tilapia are attractive to Rogers and many other pond owners since they offer an alternative to the chemical-based algae treatments that come in plastic jugs bearing a label thick in warnings.

"This is a natural-type cure, and it's just healthier for my pond, long-term, to not be dumping any chemicals in there."

The bonus with this fish-based solution to algae problems comes at the end of the summer season, when the tilapia can be fished out of the pond before the cold kills them. They provide a mild, firm flesh that is considered excellent table fare.

Or in the case with Rogers' pond, located very close to an active bald eagles' nest, nature closes the circle. Once the tilapia become lethargic in the cooler water, the eagles start picking them off.

"We fished a few out, but the eagles took care of the rest," he said.

WEAR IT: As part of the observance of National Safe Boating Week, a "Take Me Boating Toledo-Wear It Ohio" event will take place on Saturday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. with a variety of boating-related activities at the Maritime Academy and Skyway Marina.

The focus of the week is increasing the use of life jackets by all boaters, with a "Ready, Set, Wear It!" campaign that promotes the many comfortable and versatile options available in life jackets, and offers educational sessions on safe boating.

"Keeping people safe on the water by reminding individuals to always wear a life jacket is our biggest goal," said Rodger Norcross, chief of the Ohio Division of Watercraft, which is sponsoring the event along with the city, Western Lake Erie Safe Boating Council, and numerous local boating partners.

Additional event information is available at the ohiodnr.com/watercraft, ReadySetWearIt.com, or SafeBoatingCampaign.com Web sites.

Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: mmarkey@theblade.com or 419-724-6068.



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