All posts by Jessica Pernell

FWC and Bear Management

by Gil McRae

As many of you know, our Commission recently chose to postpone a bear hunt for 2016 (see the news release here: Throughout the discussion of this controversial issue, with thousands of online survey submittals and more than five hours of public comment, FWC did an exceptional job providing state-of-the-art scientific advice to our Commissioners.  FWRI, led by Walt McCown, Brian Scheick, Don Hardeman and a host of other FWC staff from HSC, HGM and elsewhere completed a statewide abundance survey in only two years.  This first of its kind survey was a phenomenal undertaking and combined with the analytical support of Dr. Joe Clark and his students at the University of Tennessee represents what many consider to be the most rigorous assessment of a statewide bear population anywhere in the country. FWC also convened an expert panel made of up some of the nation’s top bear biologists.  Their input helped frame the staff recommendation for a modified hunt in 2016.

However, it is important to realize that bear management is complex, and that the number of bears in the state is only one factor that needs to be considered.  Among other things, the Commission has made tremendous strides in working with local governments and waste management companies to increase the use of bear-proof trash cans which is the surest way to reduce human/bear conflict.  I realize and appreciate the fact that there are many views on this subject, even among our own staff, but this issue emphasized the fact that as scientists our role is provide our Commission with the highest quality information to base their decisions on.  Those decisions must ultimately take into account a number of other things such as public safety, the status of related conservation actions, and the desires of all of our stakeholders (non-hunters and hunters alike).

I wanted to share a letter that our Chairman, Brian Yablonski recently sent to our partners at Bass Pro Shops which lays out the issue well.

Dear Conservation Partners at Florida’s Bass Pro Shops,

I understand questions continue to arise regarding FWC’s recent decision to postpone bear hunting this year. We greatly appreciate the leadership role Bass Pro Shops plays in conservation efforts across the nation. We also value our strong partnership with Bass Pro Shops on important conservation efforts in Florida. In fact, we see your customers as our customers, particularly within our hunting community, and we want to make certain you and your great team in Florida have full background and context on the bear hunting decision. Please feel free to share the following message to help folks better understand how we arrived at this decision and how we see the path forward.

FWC commissioners understand that many hunters are disappointed that we are not having a bear hunt this year. We want hunters to know that we are doing our best to work through a complicated issue that has implications for hunting into the future and certainly beyond bears. We take such implications very seriously. Myself, my fellow commissioners, and FWC staff have firmly and consistently supported hunting as an essential element in the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. On a personal note, I have publicly spoken and written extensively in defense of hunting and the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. The vote to postpone bear hunting does nothing to diminish this position, and we plan to move toward a hunt in 2017.

The decision to pause bear hunting is simply a timing and a policy call. The science is sound. Our biologists are the best in the nation. They have full support and appreciation from every Commissioner, and they know this. And we are aware that those who oppose hunting on principle will not likely change their views. They will always protest regardless of how well we demonstrate the importance of hunting for responsibly managing bear populations. I don’t believe, however, these views were a significant factor in the decision.

What is a major concern, however, is the view of the vast majority of Floridians who are non hunters but are not “anti hunting”. They don’t hunt, but I believe they understand and appreciate hunting deer, turkey, alligators, waterfowl, etc. And then there are more than a few Floridians who do hunt birds or deer, but who have concerns about bear hunting. At this point, we need to do a better job making our case to all of these people. We need to take some time to listen and then work to foster understanding and support. We need to bring people together and in the words of one of our bear biologists, build off an excellent bear conservation foundation. We need to continue and expand work with communities on conflict bears and trash management and have that effort catch up with hunting. We need to build on our strong scientific basis for bear hunting in the year ahead, taking it from a gold standard to a platinum standard to help reassure a broader segment of the public.

We then need to translate broader understanding and acceptance into momentum for hunting as responsible management method. These efforts are not intended for those who will always oppose hunting in any shape or form, but for ordinary Floridians who are trying to sort this all out. This is something good we can do for hunting lest we forget that we are a tenuous minority in the state. Unlike other issues we deal with (and trust me on this as a commissioner who hears it from everybody), this is not just hunters versus anti hunters. A lot of folks in the middle need to catch up on this, and we have a responsibility to get them there.

Our scientists made a recommendation to hunt, but they also understand and appreciate these points. Our wildlife managers need time; a gift in this case. And those who follow our Commission meetings know there are plenty of times where we have been more conservative in our management decisions relative to the recommendations from our scientific staff. Taking a pause for a year doesn’t create a crisis or violate science. Each commissioner made it clear in their remarks that they support hunting as a tool for bear population management. On behalf of FWC commissioners and staff, I am hoping we can think about the big picture and the longer term as we work together through this complex conservation challenge.


Brian Yablonski


Florida Fish and Wildlife

Conservation Commission

View an archive of “Director Message” articles

Brandon Bassett

Brandon Bassett is a marine mammal biologist at FWRI’s Marine Mammal Pathobiology Laboratory in St. Petersburg, Fla. Our latest staff spotlight video goes into more detail about Brandon’s career and his professional achievements.

Statewide Wild Turkey Relative Abundance and Distribution Assessment Mapping Application

by Roger Shields and Tyler Pittman

wild turkeyIn 1973, following many years of wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) restoration efforts, the Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission (predecessor to the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission) conducted the first statewide assessments of the distribution of wild turkeys. In 2001, the FWC Wild Turkey Management Program (WTMP) conducted a similar map-based survey by mail for comparison. After this survey the WTMP included 10-year assessments of the distribution and relative abundances of wild turkey to FWC’s “Strategic Plan for Wild Turkey Management” to further monitor population trends of wild turkeys. We conducted this second assessment in 2011 using a specialized online Geographic Information System (GIS) and created an online mapping application for viewing survey results.

To begin the 2011 assessment, the WTMP and upland game bird staff at the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (FWRI) worked with an outside vendor to develop an internet-based GIS mapping system. Resource specialists from FWC, other state and federal agencies, and industrial timber companies, as well as members of the Florida Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation, the Florida Chapter of The Wildlife Society and antlerless deer permit holders were asked to participate in the survey. Survey participants used personal computers and the online application to select specific cells of a 1 km x 1 km grid covering the state for which they were familiar and enter turkey abundance information. The system provided a hierarchy of underlying maps – statewide aerial photography; statewide rivers and major roads; and county, city and conservation area boundaries – to assist respondents in recording turkey abundance data geographically.

In total, 310 people responded to the survey; unfortunately, survey responses accounted for only about 65 percent of the state, and other means were necessary to acquire information about areas lacking survey data. To this end, WTMP biologists turned to staff at FWRI for additional assistance. Research staff developed a Likelihood-based Moving Window Model that used extrinsic data (including habitat suitability models and movement distance data) and information from known areas to inform estimates for unknown areas. For every cell of the statewide grid, the model evaluated the distance from known locations and pathways through suitable habitat from known turkey locations to determine the possibility (or likelihood) of at least one turkey being able to reach and occupy the cell in question. Staff then conducted field surveys to validate these underlying models and databases to ensure they accurately reflected conditions on the ground.

These efforts culminated in a spatial dataset that represents categories of predicted wild turkey presence throughout the state of Florida. The final step of the project was to build a web-based mapping application that allows for public viewing access to the assessment results.  This online tool is available at:

map of wild turkey distribution estimates
Figure 1. This map displays results of a 2011 statewide wild turkey distribution assessment. Note that this model provides estimates using best available information and these estimates do not replace ground surveys.

However, given that wild turkey are a generalist species and widely distributed, the prediction accuracy may not be exact in all areas. Although this information is useful for depicting the general location of turkeys within Florida, caution should be taken when considering local areas, because the survey resolution (1 km x 1 km) and data are not well suited for small spatial scale application.

Using the spatial data derived from this project, FWC staff will be able to relate current turkey population distributions (based on the 2011 data) to previous assessments, vegetative communities, land ownership, harvest records, and other pertinent information.  This will allow the FWC WTMP to focus management on particular areas of the State that have suitable turkey habitat but low turkey populations.

View an archive of past “Research Spotlight” articles

Tagging and
Tracking Manatees

researchers pulling manatee onto boat
After a health assessment and tagging, the manatee is released from the capture boat. Depending on the design of the study, individuals can be tracked for a couple of months to a couple of years. FWC photo taken by Mary Jo Melichercik in Titusville, Florida. Activities were conducted under the USFWS permit #MA773494


FWC researchers have been tracking manatees in Florida’s waterways for much of the past 25 years.  A satellite-linked Global Positioning System (GPS) radio-tag is attached to a padded belt around the manatee’s tail via a flexible tether.  The GPS-transmitted locations provide a detailed record of the manatee’s movements and habitat use in close to real time.  These data are used to answer specific research questions of importance to conservation and management of this endangered species.  The new 2016-2017 manatee decal design highlights this research conducted by FWRI.  Because the floating GPS radio-tags can look similar to crab trap buoys, tagged manatees are often mistaken for entangled manatees.  Although the tagging gear does not harm the manatee, entanglements in fishing gear can cause severe injury or even death.  Public reports of these two very different manatee sightings make a difference; please report tagged manatees, entangled manatees or any other injury to FWC’s Wildlife Alert Hotline (1-888-404-FWCC).

To learn more about manatee radiotelemetry research visit the FWRI Web section and view photos of this research in the new Flickr album:

manatee decal

To order a manatee decal visit:

Be sure to join us on all our social media channels.
Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Flickr | YouTube

View an archive of past “Communications Corner” articles

Influence of Lake Productivity on Nearshore Fish Communities and Dissolved Oxygen Patterns

by Chris Anderson

net in water
A shallow, vegetated area in Lake Kerr (low productivity) where fisheries biologists deployed a mini-fyke net and dissolved oxygen logger to evaluate the influence of lake productivity on fish community composition and dissolved oxygen regimes.

During the summer of 2015, fisheries biologists deployed mini-fyke nets (MFNs) and dissolved oxygen (DO) loggers in four Florida lakes to assess the influence that lake productivity has on fish community composition, dissolved oxygen regimes, and habitat structure in shallow, vegetated areas of lakes. The four lakes evaluated were Lake Kerr (low productivity), Lake Dorr (medium productivity), Johns Lake (high productivity), and Lake Trafford (very high productivity). For each lake, the same 18 sites were evaluated during two sampling events to assess temporal variability of fish community composition and DO data collected at each site. The MFNs and DO loggers were deployed overnight, and the DO loggers were programmed to collect water temperature, DO, and conductivity data every 15 minutes. Additional environmental data was documented for each site including aquatic plant density and organic sediment depth. Once the MFNs were retrieved, biologists identified, counted, and measured all fish species collected.

people in lake with net
Biologists deploying mini-fyke net in a littoral zone site on Johns Lake.

Our results showed that fish community composition was similar between sampling events within lakes, but differed among lakes. Within lakes, duration of hypoxia (DO < 2 mg/L) did not differ between sampling events. However, higher productivity lakes (Johns and Trafford) had longer durations of hypoxia than lower productivity lakes (Kerr and Dorr). Differences in environmental data (e.g., aquatic plant density and organic sediment depth) were detected among lakes but rarely between sampling events within lakes. Understanding how lake productivity influences fish communities, DO regimes, and habitat in near-shore lake environments is important for effective aquatic resource management and policymaking.

Hatchery Outreach: Aquaculture in the Classroom

by Gina Russo

students at tank
Crystal Lake Middle School students take water quality measurements daily to ensure fish are maintained in healthy conditions

For more than 15 years, staff at FWRI’s Marine Hatchery in Port Manatee have been working with school administrators, teachers and students to bring Aquaculture and Stock Enhancement Research (SER) into the classroom. Aquaculture in the Classroom program is designed for students ranging from fifth grade through college, to teach them the basic principles of aquaculture, marine research and how stock enhancement plays a role in supporting Florida’s marine fisheries.

So how does it work? Staff at the Stock Enhancement Research Facility (SERF) provide participating schools hatchery-reared red drum (Sciaenops ocellatus) along with starter feed and technical advice on how to raise the fingerlings in the classroom. Information on system development and grant opportunities are also provided. At the end of the school year, the fingerlings are harvested and donated to local shelters or returned to hatchery to be used for outreach and education exhibits.

fish in net
Students at Canterbury School of Florida in Pinellas County sample red drum in the classroom to determine growth rate and survival

What do the students learn? SER staff work with teachers, who develop a curriculum that satisfies Florida Sunshine State Standards and provides students the opportunity to design aquaculture (fish-raising) systems, perform daily animal husbandry (care) routines and conduct research projects such as salinity tolerance tests, feed studies and water quality/chemistry investigations.

How many schools participate? Since this program began in 2001, more than 25 Florida schools from Miami to Pensacola have participated. This year, 10 schools participated statewide and 1,278 fingerlings were distributed. Many Schools like Crystal Lake Middle, Forrest Grove High and Canterbury School of Florida can rear fish all year round in recirculating aquaculture systems.

To learn more about the program, or to refer a teacher or school, please contact

A Tale of Two Teams: Coordinated Harmful Algal Bloom and Fish Kill Event Response

by Matt Garrett and Adam Richardson

dead fish on beach

In 2015-2016, a bloom of the red tide alga Karenia brevis and associated fish kills occurred in Northwest and Southwest Florida. Coastal blooms in both areas were first observed in September 2015. Although the Northwest bloom ended in January, the Southwest bloom endured until April 2016. Throughout this period, the bloom location and intensity, and associated local impacts including fish kills and reports of respiratory irritation, varied spatially from Pinellas to Monroe County. The extensive monitoring and response efforts required to track a bloom and its impacts of this spatial and temporal extent involved help from various groups within FWRI and other partners across the state, including an extensive volunteer monitoring network. Two events in particular involved careful coordination of FWRI’s Harmful Algal Bloom (HAB) and Fish and Wildlife Health (FWH) groups.

The first event occurred in late February, when extensive fish kills of marine species along the coastline of the Western Everglades were reported, several involving red drum, mullet, mangrove snapper, and snook. This raised concerns that a more extensive bloom of K. brevis, which had been previously observed at “medium” concentrations ranging from 105,500 – 473,000 cells per liter offshore of Pavilion Key (Monroe County), was causing the fish kills. Given the remote location of the reported fish kills, and the need for a rapid response to inform both management and stakeholders, scientists from the FWH and HAB groups designed a response plan utilizing two vessels to simultaneously sample both nearshore and offshore waters in the area impacted by fish kills. Staff obtained water quality data, water samples for phytoplankton, toxin, and eDNA analyses, deceased or moribund fish, seagrass samples, and sediments. Without the cooperation and rapid mobilization of the two groups, and the help of the Everglades National Park, timely samples from such a large area would not have been collected and analyzed. Although the bloom likely had a more northern origin, it is not clear what caused the fish kill. It is possible that a larger-scale bloom advected out of the system and was not detected at the time of sampling. It is also possible that either fish and/or cells may have been entrained or mixed within less saline waters, which can be detrimental to both marine fish and marine phytoplankton. For K. brevis, an influx of fresh water could contribute to cell lysis and subsequent release of intracellular toxins into surrounding water.

A second event occurred in early April, when FWC’s Fish Kill Hotline received numerous reports of a fish kill concentrated in Pinellas County, from the southern end of Madeira Beach to Indian Rocks Beach. Once again, FWH and HAB staff investigated. FWH staff conducted a beach survey, and experienced respiratory irritation in certain areas. Beachgoers were also impacted and FWH staff were approached several times with questions; they used this as an opportunity to obtain further information about the fish kill. Low densities of a variety of dead fish in early to late stages of decomposition, including hardhead catfish, spadefish, burrfish, toadfish, and grunts, were spread along the shore. Water samples from the shoreline confirmed “high” concentrations of K. brevis, ranging from 1.1 to 1.6 million cells per liter. HAB staff sampled coastal and offshore waters and in the fish kill area and further south, “medium” concentrations of K. brevis occurred in coastal waters. Cells were not observed further offshore. An autonomous glider was subsequently deployed offshore of Pinellas County through FWC and Mote Marine Laboratory’s Cooperative Red Tide program. The glider measures physical and biological parameters at different depths and its sampling track was programmed to facilitate continued surface and subsurface bloom tracking. Again, the collaborative efforts between FWH and HAB staff led to more comprehensive and spatially extensive sampling, and timely dissemination of information to stakeholders, and provided relevant contextual data to inform further response efforts at the time of the events, as well as our understanding of how these specific events occurred to improve monitoring and event response efforts.

Update on Cranes

by Tim Dellinger

Florida sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis pratensis) are one of six sandhill crane sub-species found in North America. This non-migratory sub-species ranges from southeastern Georgia to the Florida Everglades and is listed as Threatened. The current population estimate for Florida sandhill cranes is around 4,600 individuals. In 2013 the FWC began conducting annual fall recruitment surveys through the core range of Florida sandhill cranes. FWC biologists established 12 routes, totaling 1,012 km, through private and public lands to keep a finger on the pulse of the Florida sandhill crane population. The number of chicks observed has varied with spring water levels; 2014 and 2015 were wet years and the number of juveniles observed was around 90 for each year, whereas 2013 was a drought year and only 38 chicks were noted. FWC will continue to monitor the population through the recruitment surveys.

FWC is also trying to increase available habitat on public lands where only an estimated 500 birds or 15 percent of the population live. FWC began a habitat manipulation research project in 2013 with the goal to increase crane nesting on Three Lakes WMA. Like other crane species, Florida sandhill cranes require shallow, open wetlands for breeding, foraging and roosting, as well as open uplands with low vegetation for foraging. The Three Lakes site is rank with tall vegetation and saw palmetto, so we used half of the area as control and the other half was roller-chopped; both areas were later burned. We continue to monitor nesting through biweekly flights. The information from this habitat manipulation study will guide management recommendations.

aerial view of study site
Biweekly flights throughout the Florida sandhill crane breeding season is the most efficient method to locate and monitor nests over the large Three Lakes study site.
aerial view of study site
Half of the study site was roller-chopped and the other half left as control for the Three Lakes WMA habitat manipulation project. Palmetto surrounding marshes was especially targeted in treatment areas to reduce areas for predators to hide.

The FWC also continues to help with whooping crane conservation. From 1993–2004, 289 whooping cranes were released in Florida in the hopes of establishing a non-migratory population. This attempt failed due to various problems, and the decision to stop all Florida releases was made in 2008. Currently there are 8-12 birds remaining in the population. Some of these individuals continue to breed and FWC is partnering with the USFWS and Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries to capture and relocate wild chicks of the Florida birds to a whooping crane reintroduction project in Louisiana―a task that has never been attempted.

Whooping cranes stand about 20 cm taller than Florida Sandhill Cranes. This whooping crane hatched in 2015 and is a translocation candidate to join the growing Louisiana whooping crane population.

Detecting Isolated Wetlands in the Blackwater River State Forest Region of Florida

by Jennifer Bock

Sinks located in HUC 03140104

Wetlands provide significant environmental services, including pollutant assimilation, flood water storage, carbon sequestration and fish and wildlife habitat. Geographically isolated wetlands, also called ephemeral wetlands, perform many of these services, and support remarkably diverse communities.  The periodic drying of small isolated wetlands excludes predatory fish populations, making them especially valuable breeding habitat for amphibians and invertebrates. In Florida, 14 species of amphibians breed exclusively in isolated wetlands. It is often difficult to map isolated wetlands because they are relatively small, often occur under tree canopy and may remain dry for extended periods.

A predictive algorithm (maximum entropy using a program called Maxent) was applied to environmental variables derived from multispectral remotely sensed data and GIS data to approach the problem of detecting wetland areas absent from the National Wetlands Inventory (NWI) layer in the watershed that contains the bulk of the Blackwater River State Forest.

An elevation map created from Lidar (Light Detection and Ranging – a tool using a laser to collect extremely detailed elevation data), was used to identify low areas (sinks) in which water is likely to collect.  Several Maxent modelling runs were performed in order to identify the combination of environmental variables with the least correlation that would result in the simplest model while preserving a high information content. Because Maxent produces a continuous probability distribution, a binary threshold was produced to conduct an accuracy assessment. The threshold was applied at 0.3517, derived from the mean of all sinks falling within known wetlands.

Left: Final Maxent model probability distribution. Right: Distribution of predicted wetland areas after applying the threshold

Twenty percent (2278 of 11389) of the sinks that fell outside of known wetlands were randomly selected for accuracy assessment via current and historic (to 1994) Google Earth aerial photographs. Based on model evaluation methods, the final Maxent model was considered an “excellent” model fit. At the selected threshold, 120.5 km2 of 1848.4 km2 were predicted to be wetland areas. The accuracy assessment yielded an overall accuracy of 0.90, with 1257 points being wetlands, 142 points falling outside of wetlands and 881 points impossible to classify from the photographs.

Monitoring reproductive characteristics of male Florida panthers to assess genetic introgression

by Dave Onorato

sperm under microscope
Sperm abnormalities noted in Florida panthers include partial mid-piece aplasia (left) and tightly coiled tails (right).

One of the first clues that helped FWC panther researchers conclude the remnant population of Florida panthers was in peril over 30 years ago was the preponderance of so-called correlates of inbreeding depression.  Among these were several that could directly impact the fitness of individuals, hence increasing the probability of extinction of this endangered animal.  Of particular note were attributes of the male reproductive system documented in the 1980s and early 1990s that revealed panthers had the poorest sperm quality (see photo above) of any wild felid at that time. Males were also frequently unilaterally or in some cases bilaterally cryptorchid, the latter being effectively sterile.  These early findings played an important role in the decision making process to implement the genetic introgression program in 1995, which involved the temporary release of eight female pumas from Texas into the wilds of south Florida to mimic historic gene flow.


Male Florida panther in the Picayune Strand State Forest east of Naples, Florida. FWC staff and collaborators at SEZARC have examined male reproductive characteristics from >200 panthers since 2000.


Genetic introgression had a significant impact on improving male reproductive performance.  For instance, in the ensuing 15 years, only 10 percent of male panthers examined were cryptorchid in comparison to 66 percent during the pre-introgression period.  Staff continue to collaborate with Dr. Linda Penfold at the Southeast Zoo Alliance for Reproduction and Conservation (SEZARC) on male panther reproduction research.  Staff collect testicles during necropsy and ship them to Dr. Penfold’s lab where sperm quality and quantity analyses are conducted.  In some cases, sperm has been banked, something that could prove useful for genetic management of the population.  The long term data we have originate from a period when the population was undergoing a severe bottleneck through a stage of population expansion.  These data provide us with valuable information to assist with making informed decisions regarding the implementation of future genetic introgression programs should they be warranted.