All posts by Jonathan Veach

Director Message

Toward a Modern Conservation Model

By Gil McRae, FWRI Director

Many of you are familiar with the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, a set of principles codified in the 1990’s that has defined wildlife management in recent years. The core tenets of the model recognize that wildlife belongs to everyone, that access to hunting opportunities should be available to all, that no commercial markets for wildlife should exist and that science should be the basis of wildlife policy. Historically, inland fisheries management in the U.S. was a disorganized hodgepodge with fundamental questions regarding ownership of resources largely unresolved. In the late 1800’s and the first part of the twentieth century some management structure was instituted. Congress established the US Commission on Fish and Fisheries and many states formed their own Commissions in response to declining fish populations. The initial focus of these groups centered around determining causes of the declines, mitigating the effects of dams and developing fish culture and stocking programs. For coastal fisheries, concern over declining commercial landings ultimately lead to the enactment of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act in the mid-1970’s, the goal of which was (and still is) preventing overfishing. 

Florida created the post of State Game and Fish Commissioner in 1913, followed by the Department of Game and Freshwater Fisheries (1927), the Game and Freshwater Fish Commission (1935), Marine Fisheries Commission (1983) and the current Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC, 1999). In tracking this evolution, you can see a clear progression from a focus on limiting overharvest, expansion of law enforcement, conservation of habitat, incorporating non-game issues and integrating social issues into decision making. On the law enforcement policy side, federal and state agencies have built on the foundation established by the Lacey Act (the nation’s first conservation law signed in 1900 that prohibited trade in illegally harvested wildlife) to establish an encyclopedic array of specific regulations that is continually updated to prevent over-exploitation. In 1902 Guy Bradley was hired by the American Ornithologists Union to police plume hunters in the everglades. Bradley, one of the nation’s first game wardens, was murdered by plume hunters at age 35. In just a few generations, conservation law enforcement in Florida has evolved and expanded to today’s FWC force of over 700 sworn officers. While these policy and enforcement advances occurred social and political factors have framed a body of ethics adopted by most hunters and anglers characterized by concepts such as fair chase and catch and release that has resulted in a more conservation minded user base. 

As conservation agencies were building capability to minimize the risk of overharvesting, habitats were becoming lost and degraded.  Public awareness peaked with the publication of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” (1962), which spurred the birth of the environmental movement and ultimately spawned hundreds of organizations promoting the appreciation of healthy, functioning ecosystems.  Shortly thereafter, social scientists began focusing on the human side of conservation, creating conceptual models for how people perceive and value healthy fish, wildlife and habitats. Collectively, these policy, enforcement and social constructs have created a conservation landscape where the risk of over-exploitation is minimized, and the focus has increasingly transitioned to habitat quantity and quality, ecosystem structure and function, socioeconomic aspects of conservation, change due to extreme environmental events (climate change, harmful algal blooms, storms, etc.) and the impact of invasive species. These are the elements that will define the conservation landscape moving forward.

How is FWC positioned to deal with these challenges?  FWC recognized the need to focus on habitat conservation and restoration before the trend became fashionable. Science driven management ranging from Objective Based Vegetation Management and prescribed burning on our Wildlife Management Areas to comprehensive lake restoration projects and restoration of coastal wetlands have created an impressive portfolio with far-reaching impact.  Dedicated research teams focusing on terrestrial, freshwater aquatic, coastal and marine habitats have advanced the state of the science and informed countless management actions taken by dozens of agencies.  Similarly, FWC has been on the forefront of incorporating human dimensions elements into our conservation planning since its inception.  I want to highlight two initiatives that seek to build on these efforts.

While much good work has been done on protecting and restoring terrestrial habitats, much of that has been accomplished either through acquiring land into public ownership or habitat management efforts on publicly owned land. As the pressures on Florida’s ecosystems intensify, landscape-level approaches to conservation based on sound principles relevant to all types of landowners will be necessary.  Significant progress has been made on this front including establishment of strategic habitat conservation areas, statewide wildlife action plans, the critical lands and waters identification project, the cooperative conservation blueprint, and landscape conservation cooperatives which establish sound technical foundations to inform landscape level conservation.  A new Landscape Conservation Team has been formed with representatives from multiple FWC divisions and led by Beth Stys of the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (FWRI) to review progress to date and identify actions the agency can take to promote conservation across a wide spectrum of landowners and conservation groups.

However, reaching a working consensus on landscape-level goals that will get buy-in from multiple public and private partners will require additional background work.  Understanding the social and economic aspects of conservation will be the focus of the new Center for Conservation Social Sciences Research (CCSSR) recently established as a work unit within FWRI and led by Dr. Nia Morales.  CCSSR is a research center focusing on the complex relationships between people and the fish, wildlife, and habitat resources FWC conserves and protects as well as investigation of the roles people play in fish, wildlife, and conservation issues.  The center will also assist groups within FWC to develop their own social science capacity through collaborations on projects, seminars and training.  For more information on the Center see https://myfwc.com/research/about/conservation-social-science/.

While the traditional conservation approaches preventing overharvest will and must continue, the efforts highlighted above will leverage that work and promote large scale, durable conservation outcomes.

Staff Spotlight

This issue, Rachel Germeroth from Fisheries Dependent Monitoring volunteered some of her time for us to get to know her. Thanks Rachel!

What are your degrees in?

  • A.A. in General Studies, Moberly Area Community College (2008)
  • B.S. in Environmental Science with a concentration in Marine and Coastal Resources, Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi
  • I’m currently working on an M.S. in Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences at the University of Florida, under Dr. Susan Lowerre-Barbieri and Dr. Will Patterson. (Expected matriculation: winter 2020)

What has your professional experience been like?

  • Marine science can be tough to break into, especially in the economy I graduated in; so before this, many of my jobs were short-term grant-funded research positions. I’ve mainly worked in laboratories since the age of 18, in various fields. I worked in an agricultural chemistry lab at the University of Missouri, private environmental testing labs, and marine science labs studying fish ecology and harmful algal blooms at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, University of Texas Marine Science Institute (UT-MSI) and USF-St. Pete. I worked on a project at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi where we tested stormwater discharge outlets for fecal coliforms after summer rainstorms. I even worked at UT-MSI coordinating the Research Experience for Undergraduates program for a period.
  • I was an FWRI volunteer in different sections (Fish Collections, Fish Health and Harmful Algal Blooms) before I was offered a position. It gave me a chance to figure out which sections that I could see myself having a long-term interest in.

What are you working on now?

  • I keep the effort portion of the Gulf Reef Fish Survey (GRFS) running. This includes creating each survey template that is sent out, running computer codes to clean raw data and select which Gulf Reef Fish Anglers each month’s survey is sent to, and working with both the printer and USPS to make sure everything runs smoothly. Until recently, I was also tasked with entering each returned survey into the database: over 60,000 and counting! I am also beginning to be more involved with the SEDAR (Southeast Data, Assessment and Review) stock assessment project. I analyze data, write working papers and sometimes even serve on workgroups. I keep our webpages up to date, and I’ve also done some outreach work for both FDM and GRFS.

How is this information beneficial?

  • The Gulf Reef Fish Survey provides estimates of recreational fishing effort and catch for economically important Gulf reef fish species (certain groupers, snappers, etc.).

What is your typical work day like?

  • It’s pretty variable, but most days I run pre-written computer scripts, work in the databases, deal with administrative stuff, or write computer code to analyze data.

What is your greatest career accomplishment?

  • I’m really proud of how much I’ve learned in the last four years here. I came in knowing next to nothing about fisheries, database management or computer coding, but now I feel much more knowledgeable. I’m also proud of getting myself this far, from a blue-collar upbringing in a rural Missouri farmtown; I was the first person in my family to graduate from college. Throughout college, I knew I wanted to work in marine research in Florida. I first began volunteering at FWRI in 2012 and the first time I walked through the doors of the JU building (a bit in awe), I told myself “This is where you’re going to work”.

What are some of your biggest challenges?

  • Getting code to work correctly when analyzing data can be a daily challenge. I’m also learning more about effective science communication—I feel like that’s my biggest hang-up.

What do you like most about your career?

  • I love feeling like I’m making a difference in the world. As a parent, I also love how flexible our department is. It makes balancing work, life and parenting a little easier.

Was this your original career interest? Why or why not?

  • Yes! Even as a little girl in the landlocked Midwest, I told everyone who would listen that I wanted to be a marine scientist, scuba dive and “save the fishies”. Turns out it’s a little more complicated and math-heavy than I expected at age 6, but I still love it! Marine science has so many different and interesting things going on, I think I could be happy doing anything in it, as long as I feel like I’m doing some sort of good in the world.

What would you be doing if you weren’t involved in science?

  • I think I’d like being a travel agent. I love to plan our vacations; and planning other people’s vacations would be right up my alley. Wouldn’t mind the discounts on travel, either! The other option would be a librarian—I read a lot as a child and was a regular in my hometown library. Working in the peace and quiet of a library, combined with helping people pick out books to read, sounded like a dream job to me.

What advice would you give someone interested in pursuing a career in your field?

  • Volunteer, volunteer, volunteer! Get your foot in the door, so people will know your name and face; get experience and that will help you figure out which part of marine science you’re interested in working in (whether it be fisheries, habitats, marine mammals, harmful algal blooms, whatever!).

What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

  • My family and I love to travel! We’re heading to the Great Smoky Mountains during August for a week of hiking and relaxing. I also love kayaking and hiking in the Tampa Bay area, going to the beach, reading, and eating all the delicious food that Tampa Bay has to offer.

Research Spotlight

The Center for Conservation Social Science

By Nia Morales

FWRI has a brand-new research center! The Center for Conservation Social Science (CCSSR) focuses on the complex relationships between people and the fish, wildlife and habitat resources FWC conserves and protects. The CCSSR, much like FWRI’s Center for Biostatistics and Modelling and the Center for Spatial analysis, has a two-fold mission of providing consulting services and supporting broader FWC programs. The center, led by Nia Morales, is comprised of human dimensions specialists Ramesh Paudyal and Matty Cleary, and economist Julian Hwang. The CCSSR does not have a physical location that citizens can visit, rather a group of like-minded individuals working towards a shared goal. We also work with Ann Forstchen and Seth Lutter for additional support and expertise. The core group of social scientists provides consulting services for FWC programs- this includes advisement and consultation for biologists and other FWC staff on the development and implementation of social science inquiry. Staff affiliated with the center support the development and integration of social science within broader FWC programs. CCSSR staff also conduct trainings for FWC staff on qualitative and quantitative social science methods, science communication, and stakeholder outreach and education.

This new center is born of the increased need for the agency to understand and incorporate public attitudes and opinions into natural resource decision-making. Humans are at the heart of most of our most pressing conservation issues and understanding how people interact with fish, wildlife, and their habitats as well as their opinions and attitudes towards management are important. Human dimensions and conservation social science use scientific methods to describe, understand, predict, and affect human attitudes and behaviors toward the natural environment. The field incorporates methods, theories, and techniques from a broad array of social sciences like economics, sociology, anthropology, psychology, political science and education.

Some projects that our staff are currently involved in include providing support to strategic initiative teams, assessing the economic impacts of bass tournament fishing in Florida, measuring caller satisfaction with the conflict wildlife hotline, understanding private landowner opinions about FWC, and developing a management plan for black crappie. As FWC continues to increase capacity for conservation social science, we can be better suited to addressing conservation challenges now and in the future.

If you or your staff want to know more about conservation social science or have a project or idea with a social science component, please reach out to Nia Morales (nia.morales@myfwc.com). For more information on the Center see https://myfwc.com/research/about/conservation-social-science/.

Communications Corner

FWRI Celebrates 25 Years of MarineQuest this October

On Saturday, October 19th, FWRI celebrates the 25th anniversary of MarineQuest, our annual open house. This award-winning event is an opportunity for us to share with the public the depth of FWRI research. For newer employees who haven’t experienced MarineQuest, the main building and labs are open to the public where researchers guide them through each lab, engaging all ages with trivia and exercises designed to communicate science.

MarineQuest open house on October 19th runs from 10am – 4pm. School-Daze, which are two days before the open house, October 17th and 18th, is specifically for schools who sign-up ahead of time. School Daze is designed to give area schools the chance to tour FWRI before the Saturday open house, which is highly attended. Learn more here.

Reef Today, Gone Tomorrow

By Eric Weather

On October 10th, 2018, Hurricane Michael made landfall in the Florida panhandle as a Category 4 storm. This powerful hurricane caused over $25 billion in damages on land, but did the impacts end there?  Through collaborative efforts from FWRI Fisheries Independent Monitoring program (FIM) and the FWC Division of Marine Fisheries Management’s Artificial Reef program, scientists are setting out to assess the storm’s effects on Florida’s vibrant offshore environment and map changes to publicly accessible artificial reefs. 

A 50 ft tall steel structure in a water depth of 80 ft, moved about 400m, or a quarter-of-a-mile, by the strong waves and currents. The dark area represents a large depression in the sand where the tower had sat since 1993.

During a March 2019 cruise aboard the R/V Kimberly Dawn, FIM biologists utilized side- scan sonar to map over 50 square nm of sea floor near the eye path of Michael in the Northern Gulf.  The images are now being compared to previously identified reef habitat in the area, and at first glance it appears the huge waves created by the storm displaced many artificial reef structures and reshaped natural reef habitats.  This image shows a fifty-foot tall submerged radio tower that was dragged over 1,000 feet along the seafloor!  Understanding fish habitat is vital to properly managing Florida’s valuable fisheries, and this study will provide key insight into how large storm events affect these resources.

A 143′ Navy tugboat, the “Accokeek”, artificial reef site as seen on side-scan sonar.

Assessing Insect Communities and Plant-Pollinator Networks in Fire-Maintained Sandhills

by Johanna Freeman

The arthropod fauna of xeric longleaf pine savannas has been conservatively estimated at 4,000 to 5,000 species.  This diversity virtually guarantees that insects play numerous and complex roles in the functioning of longleaf pine sandhills, but little is known about sandhill insect communities and how they are affected by land management activities.  In particular, fire effects on plant-pollinator interactions are poorly documented, and at present there are few management recommendations regarding pollinators in fire-maintained sandhills. 

The Upland Habitat research group is working on a project designed to collect baseline data on sandhill insect communities, as well as identifying areas in which fire management can influence insect species diversity and plant-pollinator networks.  In collaboration with University of Florida community ecologist Dr. Benjamin Baiser and his students, we are sampling 24 1-hectare research plots at 9 fire-maintained sandhill preserves once a month from March to October 2019.  The study sites have been chosen carefully in order to provide adequate replication of a variety of environmental variables (soil moisture, soil texture, and elevation) and standardize others (time-since-fire), which will enable us to sort out anthropogenic sources of variation from natural environmental gradients.  We are also collaborating with Dr. Eben Broadbent of the University of Florida spatial ecology lab, who will be using a combination of LiDAR and high-resolution aerial imagery to quantify landscape-scale structural and spatial variables surrounding the research plots. 

Butterflies pollinating Cirsium horridulum. Photo by Cherice Smithers.

Every month, the research team deploys five insect-trapping arrays in each plot for 24 hours.  The arrays consist of vane traps, pitfall traps, and bowl traps, each of which targets different types of insects.  Plant-pollinator interactions are also observed in each plot once a month.  Each 1ha research plot is divided into 4 quadrants, within which an observer walks a serpentine transect covering the entire quadrant over the course of 30 minutes, for a total of 2 hours sampling time per plot per month.  Every time the observer encounters an insect interacting with a flower, he/she captures the insect for identification and notes the plant species upon which it was encountered.  All flowering plant species within the 1ha plot are identified during the monthly visit, and flower abundance counts are conducted.  Back at the lab, research technicians have their work cut out for them sorting and pinning hundreds of insect specimens, which are being identified by entomologist Dr. Josh Campbell of Auburn University. 

The Upland Habitat group is grateful for all the support we have received in implementing this challenging field project.  It has been very much a team effort, requiring the input of several specialists and entailing a heavy schedule of monthly field work.  The project has been made possible by funding from the State Wildlife Grants program and the Fish and Wildlife Foundation of Florida, and the cooperation of the Florida Forest Service, Florida Park Service, St. John’s River Water Management District, Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, and private landowner Nolan Galloway, Jr.  We look forward to analyzing the data and learning much, much more about this important component of sandhill ecosystems!

Coral Disease Data Management and Response

By Nick Alcaraz

During the fall of 2014, over 20 species of stony corals near Key Biscayne in Miami-Dade County, Florida developed cases of disease-related tissue loss. The disease continued for multiple years along a large portion of the Florida Reef Tract (FRT). As of fall 2018, the outbreak had moved as far north as Martin County and south into the lower Florida Keys. Although yearly disease events occur regularly, this outbreak was uncommon due to the high number of affected species, the rapid mortality rate of colonies, and extended duration of the event.

A comprehensive data management implementation plan was necessary to deliver appropriate and timely information for coral disease response efforts. As part of the Data Management Team (DMT), staff from FWRI’s Center for Spatial Analysis (CSA) in St. Petersburg, FL are addressing data access, storage, analytics and visualization. The effort has generated synthesized data products to guide response actions such as field coordination and resource management decision support.

One aspect of the project consisted of collaboration with FWC’s Coral Reef Research Program. Reconnaissance and rescue of corals in the Lower Keys is currently taking place. Researchers needed resources to determine priority rescue locations, document the progression of the disease margin, and track corals in-lab after rescue. Solutions were developed using ESRI’s ArcGIS Online products, specifically the Operations Dashboard and Web-Mapping Applications. These tools synthesize Excel datasheets and provide an easy-to-use exploratory interface for field staff, research staff, managers, and the public.

The results of this project will be incorporated into an on-going coral disease response effort which seeks to: improve understanding about the scale and severity of the Florida Reef Tract coral disease outbreak, identify primary and secondary causes, identify management actions to remediate disease impacts, and ultimately restore affected resources.

Dorsal Spine Excision and Acute Survival of Largemouth Bass in Florida

By Summer Lindelien

In Florida, Largemouth Bass (LMB) are mainly aged by interpreting annular rings (i.e., annuli) deposited in sagitta otoliths, but extraction can only be accomplished via lethal dissection. Development of non-lethal aging techniques would be a stepping-stone for new research. For example, FWC partners with bass anglers through TrophyCatch, tournaments, and tagging studies which largely, if not explicitly, involve catch and live-release of LMB. Incorporating a non-lethal aging method in these activities would increase the breadth and application of data collected by anglers and scientists; thus, it would be a vital tool for LMB management and conservation in Florida.

Our current non-lethal aging investigations are focused on dorsal spines III–V. Dorsal spines are accessible, easy to remove and process, and when cross-sectioned they can provide relatively precise and accurate ages. The initial step towards implementation was to evaluate the assumption of non-lethality of dorsal spine removal. The objectives of our study were to 1) determine the effects of dorsal spine excision on LMB survivability, and 2) determine if LMB size affects survival following dorsal spine excision.

To evaluate survival after dorsal spine removal, we collected 36 wild LMB across a range of sizes (30–57 cm total length; TL). For positive fish identification, we implanted each LMB with a passive integrated transponder tag and associated them with a weight (g) and TL (mm). After transporting the LMB, we randomly established them in six identical 1200-gallon outdoor tanks where they acclimated for a week. Next, we removed dorsal spines III–V (n = 18) with a pair of cutting pliers and surgical scissors. During the experiment, each tank was occupied by three LMB with excised dorsal spines and three with no excised dorsal spines (i.e., controls). We fed LMB a mixture of wild-caught crayfish, tadpoles, and Bluegill, which were evenly apportioned among tanks at each feeding.

An FWC biologist removes dorsal spines III-V on a largemouth bass.

Over the 35-day study, no mortalities were observed for LMB with excised dorsal spines, and experiment-wide survival was 0.94. Survival was not affected by LMB size, so we proceeded to look for differences in survival between groups without the effect of TL. Ultimately, survival was not different between excised and non-excised LMB (p = 0.15). Despite LMB being fed throughout the trial, all fish exhibited a significant decrease in weight after the study (p < 0.001). On average, LMB lost 105 g, but there was not a significant difference in weight loss between treatment groups. The areas of excision healed with no visible wounds or sublethal effects; however, we noted some LMB with potential handling sores on other parts of their bodies. Consequently, proper care and handling of fish should be kept in mind moving forward with this non-lethal aging technique.

Our current research is focused on continued validation of dorsal spine aging accuracy and precision in LMB across a diverse suite of Florida waterbodies: Lake Griffin, Stick Marsh/Farm 13 Reservoir, Fellsmere Reservoir, L-67A Canal, Escambia River Marsh, and Apalachicola River. As our accuracy is better documented, removal of dorsal spines likely will be taught to fisheries biologists and citizens who handle trophy-bass (≥ 3.63 kg) frequently, allowing an avenue for collection of age data without sacrificing bigger LMB.

FWC biologists designed and constructed an aeration system for 36 largemouth bass held in six 1,200 gallon tanks during a 35-day survival experiment.

Florida Scrub Lizard Reintroduction in Palm Beach County

By Kevin Enge

In February-March 2019, FWC staff and volunteers collected 100 Florida scrub lizards (Sceloporus woodi) from two state parks in southern Martin County and released them in county-owned Hypoluxo Scrub Natural Area in central Palm Beach County.  The endemic Florida scrub lizard has been petitioned for federal listing as threatened, and an FWRI status survey conducted in 2017-18 determined that the southern extent of its range along the Atlantic coast now consists of two scrub preserves in northern Palm Beach County.  A 1986 status survey recorded the species from 15 of 16 sites visited in Palm Beach County and four sites in Broward County.  Since then, its range has contracted 77 km northward along the coast.  The species is still widely distributed on ridges in the central peninsula, but disjunct populations that once occurred along the southwestern Gulf coast in Lee and Collier counties are extinct.

Hypoluxo Scrub Natural Area contains approximately 24 hectares of suitable habitat, which consists of extensive areas of bare sand and clumps of scrub oaks that provide shade and cover.  Areas of bare sand are used for foraging, basking, and social interactions.  Scrub lizard populations disappeared from this urban preserve circa 2005, possibly because of feral cat predation (this is no longer such a problem). Hatchling scrub lizards were observed in the preserve on 12 June.

If this reintroduction is successful, the occupied range of the species will be extended 37 km south.  This population will be monitored using visual encounter surveys every two months for the next two years.  A toe was removed from each released lizard and preserved as a genetic sample in case we wish to know the number of founder animals contributing to the established population and their relatedness.  This experimental project was a collaborative effort between FWRI staff, HSC staff in the West Palm Beach office, Palm Beach County Department of Environmental Resources Management, and Florida Department of Environmental Protection.  There is an FWRI video on this project, here: https://youtu.be/tENf2P80FFU.

Agency News

Coral Monitoring Dashboard

The Florida Reef Tract has been experiencing an outbreak of a coral disease termed Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD), which was first reported off the coast of Miami-Dade County in 2014. A multiagency, multidisciplinary response was developed to guide management actions.

The goal of the project was to rescue healthy corals ahead of the disease front and place them in Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) accredited land-based aquaria to conserve and protect the genetic diversity of Caribbean coral species and increase the number of corals available for future outplantings on the Florida Reef Tract.

The Coral Monitoring Dashboard provides summary information about the rescue effort including: number of corals rescued, species rescued and facility currently housed. The dashboard is updated biweekly to monthly, depending on the rescue effort.

View the Dashboard: Coral Rescue – Coral Monitoring Dashboard

To learn more about Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease and FWC response, visit the SCTLD web page.