CLEARWATER, Fla. (WFLA) — Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried spoke at the Florida Department of Agriculture’s Division of Plant Industry Office in Clearwater about the ongoing eradication process for an invasive snail species detected in Pasco County. Officials from FDACS said the snails may have been in the county for a year already.

“The giant African snails are back, but let me assure you, we will eradicate these snails,” Fried said. “We have done it twice before and we will do it again. It’s not a question of if, it’s just when.”

Fried said the state had been successful in eradicating the snails before by working closely with the affected communities and media outlets to provide information about them and the process of removing them.

The agriculture commissioner said the snails were a big deal “because they are one of the most damaging snails in the world and consume at least 500 different types of plants, making them a clear threat to our agricultural and natural areas. Agriculture is the backbone of Florida’s economy, and it is important to protect the vital industry from invasive pests, like GALS, that are recklessly brought into our state by pet traders and other illegal means.”

Fried referred to the parasite the snails carry, the rat lungworm, which can spread meningitis. She said the snails were “dangerous creatures” and urged residents to leave eradication to professionals.

The event itself was a follow-up to previous FDACS announcements that a quarantine zone had been set up in New Port Richey to eradicate a detected population of Giant African Land Snails, an invasive species of gastropod known to harm crops and potentially spread disease.

“If you see a snail and you believe it to be a giant African snail, please contact our Division of Plant Industry helpline,” Fried said. The number to call is 1-888-397-1517.

Dr. Greg Hodges, the assistant director of the division, spoke next to talk about the snails, and the quarantine and eradication process.

“This marks the third time that this exotic snail has been introduced to Florida,” Hodges said. “The first time was in the late 1960s and resulted in a successful eradication program, that took about seven years and resulted in about 17,000 snails being collected at a cost of $1 million.”

He said the second eradication effort came in 2010, when the snails were detected in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. A resident had noticed the snails and informed the FDACS. The USDA was contacted to confirm the snails.

“One thing to note about this particular detection, this population has a very light cream-colored body with a typical dark and mottled brown shell,” Hodges said. “The populations that we dealt with in the previous two eradications had dark grey to brown bodies. This cream colored phenotype is very common in the pet trade in Europe and has been intercepted here in Florida previously with the illegal pet trade.”

Hodges reiterated that owning the snail in the U.S. was illegal, and said that should the snail become “established” it could damage the state’s crop yields. He said it could also have “international trade implications. Additionally, it can feed on plaster and stucco associated with houses in order to gain calcium for shell hardening. It also is a known carrier for the rat lungworm, known to cause meningitis in both humans and animals.”

Hodges said the eradication effort takes time, but said that he agreed with Fried on her prediction of success. He said successful eradication may sometimes be declared as far out as two years after final detection of population occurs.

“So far today, we have collected a little over 1,000 snails in the core area, with 29 properties being positive,” Hodges said. “We have 30 personnel currently assigned to the program, and our teams are even today conducting detections, through inspections of yards. They’re hand collecting snails when they see them, and we’ve started our treatment program.”

He said the quarantine zone would help prevent the snails’ spread.

Fried introduced Division of Plant Industry deputy director Brian Benson, who brought a detector dog up to explain how the department hunts the snails down.

“We have had this program with the Division of Plant Industry for over 10 years, we started it in 2012 with four canines that we have trained to work in parcel facilities to inspect mail parcels that may be infested or have host material within them that may be infested with plant pests,” Benson said. “Two years after we started our detector dog program, we added two canines to the program in Miami-Dade that were specifically trained to target Giant African Land Snails.”

Benson said the canines were owned by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and FDACS staff are trained to work with the dogs, who choose their handlers, rather than the humans choosing their partners. According to Benson, the dogs are all rescues, and typically Labrador breeds.

“The Division of Plant Industry has one of the most elite canine inspection teams in the United States,” Benson said. “With the two canines that are specifically targeting mollusks, and our four canines that work in parcel facilities.”

After Benson spoke, Fried said the Division’s work was invaluable to the state and urged cooperation and assistance to detect the snails.

“If you see one of these snails, do not touch it,” Fried reminded. “Call us, make sure that you’ve got experts, they carry diseases like meningitis with them, and most importantly, do not eat them. This is not a snail to be put on butter and oil and garlic. This is not something that you want to touch, this is not something you want to eat.” She said it was a project that needed the community’s involvement and vigilance to complete, before taking questions.

When asked about the snails potential presence in other areas of Florida, Hodges urged residents to call the helpline to report the presence of snails that may be the GALS.

“We’ll have teams go out there and make sure, there are some other snails that may be depending on the size it could be confused, but we want to make sure it is actually the Giant African Snail, but if it is we’ll move in there and begin taking care of it immediately,” Hodges said.

Fried said it was “more important to overcommunicate than to under-communicate,” and joined her colleagues in urging residents to report snails they see in case the snails are the invasive pest.

Hodges said, answering a question on the meningitis risk, that none of the snails collected so far had not presented the rat lungworm parasite which carries the disease. He said a lab was being set up to do more testing for that potential, but so far none had been detected. Hodges also confirmed that all of the snails discovered had been found in the quarantine zone set up, and in the past week.

“The good thing is they move pretty slow, they need human help to move around in new areas,” Hodges said. “So whenever they mate, what they’re going to do is lay those eggs in the soil, they’re going to burrow down and lay those eggs, they’ll take some time for incubation and hatch. The best thing to make sure they’re not moving is what we’re doing, detection.”

Hodges said that as the young emerge, it was important to not move potted plants and other items to ensure they don’t spread further.

Concerning the meningitis risk, Fried was asked about a recent poster using a Ghostbusters theme and how it concerned some residents that it made light of the risk. Fried said the department was taking the meningitis risk seriously and was working to use more creative methods to reach more residents.

Following collection, Hodges said snails were brought back to FDACS, then euthanized and the dead snails were taken to be stored in Gainesville for comparison to previous populations on a genetic level, as well as tested for the rat lungworm parasite that spreads meningitis.

“I think the biggest thing is,” Hodges said. “The snail is quite attractive and people like it in the pet trade, particularly in Europe. People might like that here, people like unusual things, and what I would tell anybody is to please research anything that you’re looking to purchase as a pet and make sure it is legal and safe to have,” saying again that owning the snail was illegal.

While he could not confirm the exact origin of this population of snail in the Pasco County area, Hodges said the cream-colored phenotype was popular in the pet trade, but to answer a question about sourcing, he was unable to say if the pet trade was how this outbreak had begun. Hodges confirmed again that some pet trade samples of similar snails had been intercepted.

The snails are illegal to import or own in the U.S. without a permit. The eradication effort is the third in the state, and comes after a recently-completed effort to kills the snails in Miami-Dade County. The Miami snail purge effort took 10 years, with the snails detected in 2011 and the eradication effort officially ended in September 2021.

The snails were detected in Pasco County on June 23. FDACS set up a quarantine and began efforts to kill the pests on June 24.

Hodges said the largest snail found so far was 4.5 inches, meaning it was possible the snails had been present for at least a year. He said Massachusetts Avenue was the main street the snails were found in the quarantine zone.

Fried said the FDACS had a “tremendously large team” working with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration the large number of ports in the state.

“Because agriculture is such a prominent part of our economics in the state, it is so imperative we get in front of these things immediately,” Fried said. She said it was in the public’s hands to listen to the warnings and report any snails on the chance that they are the invasive species.

“As you heard, it is a two year buffer from the last one that we find to the complete eradication,” Fried said, but noted that the state had “incredible support” from the federal government to help deal with the snails. Fried closed out the conference thanking everyone for participation and media coverage to help get the word out.

“This truly is a partnership, we need you all to make sure this is getting out to the public,” Fried said. “The only way we’re going to continue to eradicate them is the consciousness of the people in the communities.”