Florida is digging in for a long siege in Pasco County.
Giant African land snails — “one of the most damaging snails in the world” — have infiltrated the county’s second-largest city, New Port Richey, and its immediate surroundings. State agriculture officials say they have already captured more than 1,000 of the fist-sized invaders since identifying the first intruder on June 23.
“Let me assure you: We will eradicate these snails,” Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried told reporters Thursday.
This is not Florida’s first skirmish with the pests. The state thwarted two previous years-long incursions around Miami-Dade County, first in the late 1960s and early 1970s, then again between 2011 and 2021. The last battle cost $23 million.
Giant African land snails eat hundreds of types of plants, and sometimes even the stucco or plaster off buildings, which provides calcium to harden their shells. They can carry rat lungworm, a parasite known to cause meningitis in people — making the snails a real threat to humans, not just a nuisance.
So far, scientists have not detected rat lungworm in any of the snails caught in Pasco, said Greg Hodges, assistant director of the Florida agriculture department’s Division of Plant Industry. State workers had caught about 900 snails alive and nearly 150 dead as of Thursday.
Crews are surveying yards around New Port Richey and dropping the snails they find into buckets. They kill the living, Hodges said, then send the carcasses to a storage facility in Gainesville.
The biggest snail they’ve taken down in Pasco so far was 4.5 inches. The snails have been found on 29 properties. Officials said the epicenter to date is Massachusetts Avenue.
But the battleground is wider: The state has set up a “quarantine” area from the northwest corner of the U.S. 19-Ridge Road intersection, east to Little Road and south to Trouble Creek Road. They warn residents not to move the snails or materials such as plants, soil, compost and yard waste from the zone without a compliance agreement from the agriculture department.
There are roughly 30 workers on the state’s strike team, Hodges said. Two dogs are also part of the effort. The dogs are trained to sniff for the snails and to alert their handlers when they catch the scent by sitting down. No one wants the dogs to bite a snail and get sick.
The state is putting out pesticide on some properties to kill the snails. The bait is called metaldehyde. It upends the giant African land snail’s mucus production, triggering lethal dehydration.
State workers are warning homeowners before they apply the pesticide.
A Pasco resident first detected the invasion. They saw large snails in their yard and told the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, which then alerted the state.
Giant African land snails entrench themselves quickly. Hodges said they could have reached Pasco a year ago or longer, given how many the state has already caught.
Just one snail can generate 2,500 eggs in a year, according to the agriculture department.
Though Florida is familiar with this fight, the Pasco snails look different than those previously detected in South Florida. Those snails featured dark gray or brown bodies. In Pasco, Hodges said, they are cream-colored with dark shells.
The snails look similar to a variety popular in the European pet trade, he said. It’s illegal to import or keep giant African land snails as pets here without a permit, according to the state. But authorities have caught people trying to bring the pests into Florida, including some that look like the snails they’re now finding in Pasco.
Still, Hodges said, the state has not determined exactly how the pests gained a foothold in Tampa Bay.
The war will not end any time soon. The state can only declare victory, in this case “eradication,” two years after the last live snail is caught, Fried said.
“We will do whatever’s necessary,” she said.
For more information about the snails, including how to identify the pests, visit the state’s snail website.
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried advised people to not touch the snails under any circumstances. Anyone who believes they have spotted a giant African land snail is asked to call the state’s hotline at 1-888-397-1517.