group of people

Staff Changes and Workshop Hosting Fill Fish Bio’s Fall

by David Westmark


Man in lifejacket
Phil Stevens, out on the water…

This issue’s entry is way more newsy than sciencey because many happenings have occurred these past few months in the Marine Finfish Biology sub-section. For starters, Dr. Philip Stevens moved from the Charlotte Harbor FIM lab to become our new Research Scientist, AKA fearless leader! Phil’s first priority was to fill other vacant positions within the group… but more on that later. If you attended his candidate seminar, you know Phil has great vision for anticipating future research needs and their associated opportunities. He puts a high value on collaborative effort both within our group and with outside collaborators. A solid, voluminous publishing track record showing robust scientific results spanning 13 years with FWRI proves that Phil will bring much vigor, innovation and cohesion to our sub-section.

Woman on boat
Kerry Flaherty-Walia captains a FIM mullet skiff.

A good first sign of Phil’s inevitable success was choosing Kerry Flaherty-Walia as our newest Associate Research Scientist. Kerry didn’t have to move far having spent the last 11 years as a researcher in the St Pete FIM section. Her past research included the effects of disturbance (red tide, freshwater flow alterations) and seagrass bed architecture on fish community structure, fisheries connectivity/habitat use of gray snapper, and discard mortality studies (red drum and gray snapper). We can’t wait to see where Kerry’s experience with and curiosity about fish life history takes us!

Sue Lowerre-Barbieri, Sarah Walters Burnsed and Joel “Fish Whisperer” Bickford are taking us to the panhandle with a new gag grouper project. Hook and line sampling effort will originate out of west Florida ports. The project will investigate sex ratios spread over time and space along the west Florida shelf as well as age and size-specific annual fecundity. The team will also explore aspects of this protogynous hermaphrodite’s gender transition known to occur in some individuals (but which ones and why?). To help keep the project moving along they’ve brought OPS Biological Scientist II, Jordanna “Jordie” Bergman on board. Jordie is a fall 2015 graduate of USF’s marine biology program who brings lots of enthusiasm and advanced SCUBA skills to our group, not to mention an interest in cooking that should improve the quality of our occasional pot-luck lunches!

Since our last Field Notes update, OPS Biological Scientist II, Jared Ritch joined the snook research project P.I.ed by Alexis Trotter. Jared brings a good balance of fish biology expertise and mechanical know-how that will come in handy both in the wet-lab and on those electro-fishing trips up and down the tidal tributaries of Tampa Bay.

There’s more staff news coming in the Spring 2016 issue so stay tuned!

People in room at presentation
Dr. Deb Murie (left) from the University of Florida explains some of the mechanics of aging fish using otoliths.

The Age and Growth lab (A&G) has worked helping some outside groups and individuals into their regular lab and field workload. Most recently, A&G hosted and facilitated a first (hopefully annual?) freshwater fish otolith processing workshop organized by University of Florida professor, Dr. Deb Murie, FWC Freshwater Fisheries biologist Wes Porak and FWRI A&G Manager Jessica Carroll. The two half-day sessions were modeled after the annual Gulf States Otolith Processing workshops we have held here at FWRI for the past several years. Thirty-five freshwater fish researchers from two agencies and a university spread over 15 labs convened to compare, methods, results, models and issues.

People in lab
A team examines a black crappie otolith section projected onto a computer display from the microscope stage.

After an in depth orientation talk from Dr. Murie the group broke into smaller teams to examine whole and sectioned otoliths from seven freshwater species. Data were compiled and run through the usual formulae to measure accuracy and precision of age estimates. The group re-convened to discuss samples showing poor agreement between groups using a projection of the otolith onto a screen. Kim Bonvechio (Waycross FWRI) gave an informative presentation about some pitfalls of interpreting estimated age data and Brandon Thompson (Eustis FWRI) explained the ease with which some powerful age structure models can be built to inform management decisions. Participants left the workshop with new knowledge, new contacts and new perspectives to make better use of freshwater fish hard parts and the information contained therein.

Liz Southward, a USF archaeology master’s student working at Weedon Island, tapped the A&G lab to help her process and age teleost otoliths found in aboriginal midden contents. She hopes to determine species (otolith exomorphology), ages (otolith endomorphology) and sizes (length-age keys) of fish harvested by native peoples in the Tampa Bay area and compare these to samples from waste middens in the Weeki Wachee area. Species of fish apparently consumed by west Florida native tribes include catfish, mullet, red drum, snook, trout and sheepshead. Interestingly, sacrificial mounds seem to contain only certain species compared to those found in everyday, dietary waste middens suggesting that some fish species had ritualistic value for the earliest Floridians. Another visiting researcher tapping the assets of the A&G lab is Florida Institute of Technology doctoral candidate, Robbie Fiddler. He’s getting expert help processing and aging otoliths of fish from halfway around the world… parrotfish from Filipino coral reefs.

To top it all off A&G won the Saturday Indoor display award at MarineQuest 2015!

Fish in netJanet Ley and Holly Rolls wrapped up their investigation of juvenile snook using tidal tributary habitat around Tampa Bay. Funded by the Tampa Bay Environmental Restoration Fund and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, their study’s findings were submitted as a poster for inclusion in the Proceedings of the Sixth Bay Area Scientific Information Symposium (BASIS 6). Titled It Takes a Whole Riverine Estuary to Raise a Juvenile Common Snook, the poster describes key implications drawn from data gathered using traditional sampling methods and otolith microchemistry. Although most common snook initially used downstream habitats as YOY nurseries, by age-1 many had moved to upstream habitats taking advantage of presumably more favorable growth conditions. Many juvenile common snook apparently make directed movements along the estuarine gradient early in life, benefiting from unimpeded access to prime habitats for growth. This complexity of individual behavior and habitat-use may contribute to common snook population resilience under the dynamic conditions in coastal riverine ecosystems. The poster along with the rest of the Proceedings will be available online at the symposium’s web site,

People outside building
Attendees of iTAG 2015 gather on the front porch of FWRI Headquarters.

The second annual iTAG Conference wrapped up at the end of October 2015. iTAG stands for integrated tracking of aquatic animals in the Gulf of Mexico. Organized by a steering committee of members from eight academic and government institutions from states spanning the Gulf of Mexico, the conference drew over 80 participants to the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (FWRI) headquarters to discuss and strategize on how best to tag and track marine organisms at the Large Marine Ecosystem scale. The effort is so important and valuable, the Canada-based Ocean Tracking Network (OTN) has loaned acoustic receivers to fill gaps in coverage areas already established by ongoing research. For more details visit the FWRI iTAG web site and the iTAG Facebook page.

That’s the news… we will resume a scientific focus on a single project or two next time…

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