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Community hosts annual spearfishing competition to remove highly destructive fish threatening local river ecosystem: 'It makes a difference'

Reducing the population of the invasives helps protect the river's native fauna and flora.

Reducing the population of the invasives helps protect the river’s native fauna and flora.

Photo Credit: iStock

The Spring Polespear Tournament is the coolest thing this side of lionfish handbags: It turns an invasive species problem into a fun, interesting way to raise awareness. There's prize money, too.

The event, held in February in the San Marcos River in San Marcos, Texas, pays people to be the best spearfishers of tilapia and suckermouth catfish, which are hurting the river ecosystem, the San Antonio Express-News reported. The two-week contest has a companion competition in November, as well.

"They wake up in the wee hours of the morning and get out there before sunrise," said Nick Menchaca, who created the tournament. "And no matter the weather, as long as there's still visibility in the river, they're getting out there.

"... It's really cool to show them the ropes and how to spearfish ethically." 

Menchaca is an expert. He owns Atlas Environmental, which has a contract with the city to remove invasive species. In addition to the fish, snails and nutria occupy the river, outcompeting native species for resources. The catfish are particularly troublesome, destabilizing and eroding the banks with "tiny spikes on their bodies that can even wear down concrete," according to the Express-News. 

The divers who spear the most tilapia and suckermouths each get $50, while those who bring in the most weight win $300 apiece, the outlet reported.

"I think it makes a difference," Stephen Davis, the reigning tilapia-spearing champion and an aquatic biologist, said. "This is all about management."

Reducing the population of the invasives helps protect the river's native fauna and flora, including seven endangered species: two salamanders, two beetles, an amphipod, a small ray-finned fish, and a grass that grows nowhere else, Texas wild rice, per the Express-News.

The best part might be what's done with the catch: The tilapia are used in fish tacos, while the catfish become fish emulsion fertilizer.

Using such attention-getting methods effectively educates people about the cascading issues invasive species cause, including costing the U.S. economy $20 billion per year and harming human health via increased disease incidence from on-the-move pests such as ticks and mosquitoes.

"Obviously, spearing fish is the goal," Davis said. "But just being able to snorkel in this spring-fed system is really fun, just to be a fly on the wall and watch how the ecosystem functions."

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