All posts by Jonathan Veach

“Ghost Bass” Caught at Lake Apopka

This nearly white 11-pound bass was shocked this spring on Lake Apopka during electrofishing surveys. Continuing efforts by many agencies, including FWC, are helping to bring this once great fishery back to life. Research monitoring efforts show that much of the south section of the lake has excellent habitat and produces good numbers and size of bass. Bass from highly productive and/or low visibility waters are normally lighter in color, giving this impressive bass its ghostly hue.

Research Spotlight

FWRI Catalogs the Hutton Collection

By Paul Larson

In the early 1960s, Robert F. Hutton (1921-1994) and Franklin Sogandares-Bernal (1931-2016) published a series of papers on parasites from a wide variety of animals collected around Florida. From 1955 to 1962, Dr. Hutton was the head biologist and parasitologist for FWRI (then called the Florida State Board of Conservation Marine Laboratory) and from 1957-1958 Dr. Sogandares-Bernal worked with him as a marine parasitologist.

The host animals include various species of worms, oysters, birds, fish, crabs, shrimp, and mammals, while their parasites included nematodes, flatworms, arthropods, and even some non-animal groups like fungi and single-celled eukaryotes. While the disposition of the host animals is unknown, roughly 1100 prepared microscope slides of the parasites survived, having been in storage in the Florida Biodiversity Collections here at FWRI. Until now, these slides have been uncataloged, unsearchable, and completely invisible to the research community.

New labels are printed and pasted to the bottom of the slide. Old labels will be photographed because they contain additional markings and numbers that can’t be unambiguously placed into database fields.

With the help of volunteer Brooke Longval, who has spent hours examining the available data, correcting obvious errors, and formatting them for ingestion into the database, we have selected 667 slides with the highest quality data to be cataloged, labeled, and digitized. We prioritized specimens where the host species was recorded, the parasite was identified, and collecting locality information was preserved. Many of the remaining uncataloged slides are only missing one of these components and thus still have strong potential as research or reference material.

The next steps are in-progress and they include using archival glues and papers to attach new labels to the slides, photograph the slides to preserve original hand-written label data (which are deteriorating over time due to suboptimal materials), and to select representatives of the specimens themselves to be captured in photomicrographs that will be available online and associated with specimen records in the database. All newly assigned catalog numbers all start with the collection code FSBC, which identifies the collection to which they belong, and hearkens back to the earlier days of the agency when It was called the Florida State Board of Conservation.

A tray of slides with original labels. The cormorant host was collected right outside FWRI.

With so many parasites identified to genus and species by an expert in the field (Dr. Hutton has described many new species of parasite) these slides are a valuable reference source and a tool for investigating novel research questions. The host-parasite relationship is illustrative of the fact that specimens are much more than simply a time-and-place record for one species. Specimens contain a trove of ecological and environmental data that can be accessed for as long as the specimen exists, including the parasite load at the time of collection. Sometimes the parasites are obvious, as in the case of Bopyrid isopods under a crab carapace, but in the case of an Apicomplexan from the gut of a pink shrimp, one must dig a little deeper to find it.

Communications Corner

On Location

FWRI’s Communications staff has been busy in the field this last quarter, shooting video for a variety of research projects across the state. As many of you know, we produce our videos in-house with footage we shoot, both with 4k digital film cameras and DSLR still cameras. Keep an eye out for a video documenting Kevin Enge’s mark-recapture study of the Florida scrub lizard, which translocated scrub lizards from Seabranch Preserve State Park in Martin County to Hypoluxo Scrub Natural Area in Palm Beach County.

We also recently completed filming at Ft. De Soto Park in Tampa Bay for Fisheries Independent Monitoring’s new training video. This was a large shoot, incorporating underwater GoPro footage as well as overhead drone footage to capture best training practices for setting a variety of different gears.

At the Research Institute, a shark ID workshop, led by Brent Winner, was also documented with photos and video.

The Communications staff extends a generous thank you to all FWC staff that assisted, explained, and generally put up with us and our cameras during field work. If you think you might have an idea for a video for your section, please let Communications know!

Carol Davis shooting video in Tampa Bay for FIM’s new training video.

Staff Spotlight

Dillon Day, FWRI’s new Safety Program Manager, donated some of his time this month to introduce himself. Thank you, Dillon, and welcome to FWC!

What are your degrees in?

  • (May 2014) B.S. Public Health, University of South Florida
  • (April 2017) MPH Environmental and Occupational Health, Florida International University

What has your professional experience been like?

  • I’ve volunteered with the department of health in both Dade and Manatee County. I conducted HIV testing and outreach in Dade County. While in Manatee county, I compiled many different environmental health assessments in different areas such as Migrant Housing, Public Swimming Facilities, Biomedical Waste, and Septic Installations.  I was previously employed as a Safety officer with Beall’s Retail Distribution. I was tasked with keeping the facility in compliance with OSHA and other regulatory agencies as well as handling Workers Compensation claims.

What are you working on now?

  • Many projects are currently underway. We are working on cleaning the 3rd floor cold room in the JU Building of FWRI-St. Pete, as well as adding some handrails to ramps in the F-Building and RMI Building in FWRI-St. Pete. One of my largest undertakings thus far is getting the facilities prepared for hurricane season.

How is this information beneficial?

  • Every project that I commence has the same basis, “How can I make FWRI safer for colleagues, guests, and the general public.” I love finding solutions and creating policies that help create a safer environment for everyone.

What is your typical work day like?

  • There is no typical day in the Safety field. This is a very dynamic position that keeps me on my toes. Some days I could be sitting at my desk writing policies and researching regulatory compliance. Other days I am conducting hazard assessments and environmental and occupational health testing’s around the facility.

What is your greatest career accomplishment?

  • I am still relatively new to this career and still gaining valuable experience. Nevertheless, my greatest accomplishment thus far was to help my previous facility reach a milestone of over 3.2 million hours worked without a lost-time accident.

What are some of your biggest challenges?

  • The largest challenge to most safety professionals is employee complacency. Employees can get used to their daily routine and not be as open to change.  I have used this to guide my policies and programs to be as beneficial, adaptable, and easy to understand as possible for all employees. 

What do you like most about your career?

  • I love the daily challenge of not knowing what to expect. Every day is different, and you must remain dynamic. I love helping my fellow colleagues get home to their families every night. My goal is for everyone to get home in the same, if not better, condition that they arrived in.

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

  • I have always wanted to help people, so the safety field was a good way to go. My college course pushed me into this field and I decided to run with it! I have enjoyed every second of it so far!

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

  • I always thought I would make a good fishing boat captain or fire-fighter. Those were some of my childhood dream jobs, so if I wasn’t in the safety field I would most likely be out on a boat!

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

  • Continually educate yourself. The safety field changes all the time with new regulatory requirements. They only way to stay abreast of new situations is to continually educate yourself through classes and professional certifications.

What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

  • I am a very outdoorsy person. I like to hit the beach, go kayaking, and boating whenever I am given the opportunity. I like to try hole in the wall restaurants and explore different cuisines with my fabulous girlfriend, soon to be fiancé (don’t let her know!). I also spend a lot of time playing and taking care of our 1-year old Labradoodle, Daisy!

Agency News

April is Florida Volunteer Month

To help celebrate and spread awareness of the volunteer programs of FWRI, and FWC generally, we would like to extend a heartfelt thank you to all our divisions and offices who work with volunteers and interns. You make it possible for volunteers and interns to participate in all areas of the FWC’s operations. We celebrate you and all the skills, knowledge and time you spend to make volunteer and intern projects a value to the agency. Your willingness, commitment and success with volunteers and interns ensures they have a valuable experience, conservation gains are achieved, and leads to our volunteers and interns becoming long-term stewards for Florida’s natural resources. Over 5,000 volunteers, including interns, assist the FWC with more than 90 projects annually. Happy Florida Volunteer Month!

You can direct citizens curious about our volunteer opportunities and internships here, as well as the FWC Volunteers Facebook page.

Director Message

The Case for Science Within Government

By Gil McRae, FWRI Director

“Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of public happiness…”
– George Washington, Inaugural State of the Union Address, January 8, 1790

Following the American Revolution, the founding fathers faced the daunting task of setting up a government.  The war, which had for all intents and purposes ended with the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown in 1781, was not officially over until the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783.  At that time, the US was still a loose confederation of states with little to no central authority.  Nothing got done without the agreement of a majority (or in some cases the entirety) of the thirteen states.  That remained the situation until the US Constitution was ratified by a majority of the states.  The Constitution, which became effective in 1789, established the president as chief executive and one of the requirements was that the president shall “…from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union…”, which brings us to the above quote by George Washington.  The quote is from his (and our) inaugural state of the union address which was read to congress in New York City, the capital at that time.  Washington D.C. did not yet exist, and the area was literally a swamp. 

The fact that the first president of this new country would take the time to highlight the importance of an educated citizenry (unfortunately at the time, only white men) is very telling.  Among the various powers the Constitution assigned to Congress is the “promotion of science and the useful arts”.  The founders of our country realized that the idea of the United States was more important than the mechanics of government and that our fundamental principles – government based on consent of the governed, individual rights, freedom of speech and no state sponsorship of religion – needed to be widely taught for our system of government to endure.  Because the concept of the United States was not yet widely accepted the big concern was how to promote national awareness.  Along those lines, Washington and many other early leaders were extremely interested in establishing a national university.  Washington, who was the nation’s wealthiest president excluding (perhaps) the incumbent even provided for the national university in his will.  The idea of a national university did not pan out, mainly because the states developed their own universities to complement those that existed prior to independence.

In challenging times our nation has repeatedly turned to science to inform policy, although the pathway has not always been quick or straightforward.  The National Academy of Sciences was established by Abraham Lincoln in March 1863 in the midst of the Civil War.  Earlier that year, Lincoln had introduced the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves in states that had seceded from the union.  One of the first tasks assigned to the newly established Academy was to figure out a way to stabilize compasses aboard the newly deployed ironclad ships, whose iron hulls interfered with the navigational tools.

In Florida with the establishment of the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission as a constitutional agency, the inherent value of science within government is recognized.  Although the word science does not appear in Florida’s Constitution, the word research occurs 3 times: 1) in establishing the mission of the state university system, 2) in exemptions associated with the net limitation amendment, and 3) in defining the mission of FWC.  The three pillars of the FWC mission:  management, research and law enforcement are enshrined in perpetuity in the constitution.

Our FWC mission as laid out in the constitution seems straightforward and laudable but there are some realities relative to science that are not often understood.  While our Commission has a proven track record of basing natural resource decisions on sound science, they are not required to follow that approach.  Technically, our Commission is bound only by something known as the “rational basis test” which simply means that they must act rationally related to a “legitimate government interest”.  Former supreme court justice Thurgood Marshall once said, “The constitution does not prohibit legislatures from enacting stupid laws”.  The same could be said for our state constitution and our Commission.  While we can all be proud of the scientific legacy we have built over more than six decades at the Institute (and the fact that our Commission has been committed to science-based management) it is important to realize that does not necessarily have to be the case.  The facts will usually win out, but it can take a very long time for that to happen – consider our ongoing struggles with racial and gender equality.

While it has taken a while to get there, policymakers are beginning to reach out to scientists on the biggest environmental challenge of our time, anthropogenic climate change.  The conditions that result in a warming and less stable climate and the acidification of our oceans have been with us for decades and the rate of accumulation of green house gases in our atmosphere is accelerating.  Florida’s fish and wildlife are and will continue to be impacted by climate change.  Governor DeSantis has introduced bold policy initiatives related to water quality and has hired the state’s first ever Chief Science Officer within DEP, Dr. Tom Frazer who is a longtime FWC partner and a great choice for the position.  As of this writing, the state is advertising for a Chief Resilience Officer to coordinate Florida’s preparations for “environmental, physical and economic impacts of climate change, especially sea level rise”.  While much more needs to be done at the national and international level to combat climate change, these are positive and encouraging steps at the state level.

Policies are not always required to be based on science, but the enduring ones almost always are.  It is our continuing challenge to build on our foundation of success and to be prepared as new opportunities arise.

Conservation Actions Tracker

By Sarah Sharkey

The Conservation Actions Tracker (CAT) is a new tool that provides a visual representation of past, current, and impending conservation work around the state and includes detailed information about each listed conservation action.  The tool provides a map interface, project details and the ability to filter search results.  In addition to viewing other conservation actions around the state, the CAT will allow partners to add their conservation action projects to the CAT. The tool was developed in response to requests by the Peninsular Florida Landscape Conservation Cooperative’s (PFLCC) Steering Committee.  They requested a tool that would allow them to easily find information about each other’s conservation projects.  The tool has the potential to assist partners as they pinpoint areas to focus their conservation efforts by providing a complete picture of the current and past conservation action projects in the state. With a complete picture, organizations can coordinate conservation actions to represent shared priorities across the state. The actions of each partner project are most effective as a cumulative effort towards landscape level conservation. Partners will be able to see the broader impact of their conservation actions through the CAT.

We recognized that it is challenging to stay up to date with the many conservation projects around the state. As partner organizations begin to use the Conservation Action Tracker, it will become easier to stay up to date; however, the tool will only be as good as the data entered and it is up to partners (including FWC) to take the time and add their project information.  If you would like to learn more about the CAT or would like an individual or group tutorial, contact Sarah Sharkey (sarah.sharkey@myfwc.com).  The CAT is on the PFLCC Conservation Planning Atlas page

If you are interested in using the Conservation Action Tracker, then please head over to the Conservation Planning Atlas.

MetaRep – FWC’s New Internal Metadata Tool

By Adrienne Ruga

The key to any good dataset or project is comprehensive metadata; information about the data itself.  Metadata addresses the ‘who, what, where, when and how’ the data was generated.  Over the years, FWRI utilized a variety of tools to create metadata.  The most recent tool was NOAA’s MERMAid (Metadata Enterprise Resource Management Aid) application which served as FWRI’s online metadata repository. Several years ago, NOAA decided to shelve this project. While there were other online metadata tools available, FWRI decided to develop its own.

FWRI-IS&M staff built a tool for FWC’s biological and geospatial** metadata needs, called MetaRep (Metadata Repository), but it’s much more than a repository. It allows you to:

  • Create new project and dataset metadata records
  • Search, filter, and edit existing records
  • Self-manage your information in the contact database
  • Export a FGDC XML* document for grant deliverables
  • Draw geographic study areas with a Mapping tool
  • Associate project with dataset records
  • A Help document explains how to use the tool

MetaRep was designed for ease of use and with an awareness of users’ time constraints. The only required fields are on the first tab of the record entry view. However, the more details the better, so we provided tabs for you to fill out additional information such as habitat, species, data information, geographic details, and to draw study areas on a map.

FWC’s metadata records are used for several purposes, the most important of which are to archive information about data for future research, for data discovery so other researchers will know what research has been conducted and in which geographic areas, and to show granting agencies the value of our research.

Federally-funded projects normally require researchers to submit metadata with their deliverables. MetaRep allows you to easily export your metadata record as an XML or a Word document to include with your final documents. Even if your project doesn’t mandate a metadata record, it’s strongly encouraged that you create metadata for datasets and projects.

We worked to make this tool useful and simple to use. We hope that once you start using it, you’ll appreciate the value of metadata and how it supports our mission.

The FWC-RIC’s Metadata page provides a link to training materials and to the metadata application. It also contains a Suggestion Log link for you to help us improve the next iteration of MetaRep.

For more details, please feel free to contact Adrienne.Ruga@MyFWC.com 727-502-4774.

*Federal Geospatial Data Committee’s standard for metadata (FGDC-CSDGM)

** To record complete geospatial datasets (with Entities and Attributes) consider using ArcCatalog and/or the EPA Metadata Editor (EME) version 3.2.1, which can be used with or without ArcCatalog.  

Here’s the link to the EME:  https://github.com/USEPA/EPA-Metadata-Editor-3/releases  Download the “EME_v321_Installer.zip”, which has a .msi file to install. Do not use the newer version of the EME as that is for the ISO standard.

Florida Keys Reef Fish Monitoring: Reef Fish Visual Census

By Alejandro Acosta, Jennifer Herbig, Jessica Keller, Danielle Morley and Colin Howe

In the Keys, the finfish team was hard at work during 2018, collecting data for the biennial reef fish underwater visual census. Underwater visual census methods are used worldwide to survey shallow aquatic habitats. These methods are suited to monitoring the abundance of coral reef fish because it allows for the collection of community level data without the disturbance inherent in other, more destructive sampling techniques. The finfish team monitors reef fish assemblages and benthic components with the objective of detecting changes in reef fish communities over time.

This is a multi-agency partnership that includes the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, National Park Service, and University of Miami-Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and we rely on each other to complete the sampling. The RVC survey is a probability-based stratified random sampling survey that focus hard bottom habitat in depths less than 30m.  Sites are chosen by using a two-stage stratified-random sampling design based on depth and habitat.  Habitat with higher complexity has more fish, and therefore higher variance.  To improve sampling accuracy, more sites are allocated to habitats with higher complexity.    Targeting locations that represent important habitat for many fish species, scientists visit each of these sites to observe the size, species, and number of fishes within their sample location.

More than 4,000 individual fish surveys were conducted during the 2018 RVC season in South Florida, and the eight members of the finfish team conducted 452 of these surveys at 113 sites in the middle Keys.  They counted 89,464 individual fish, representing 187 species. FWC uses data from these surveys to help inform management decisions. For example, data from the RVCs were recently used to support the continuation of the Research Natural Area (a no-take marine reserve) in the Dry Tortugas for the next 20 years.  Data are also used in stock assessments, like the upcoming SEDAR 64 for Southeastern Yellowtail Snapper.  For more information, check the link. http://myfwc.com/research/saltwater/fish/research/fim-fl-keys-visual-sampling/

Sampling domain of the Florida Keys Reef Fish Monitoring. Each purple dot represents a survey conducted by the finfish team in 2018 in the middle Florida Keys.

Fine Tuning Reef Fish Surveys through the Incorporation of Hydroacoustic Technology

By Ryan Munnelly and Brett Pittinger

Stereobaited remote underwater video arrays (S-BRUVs) have become a standard gear used to sample fish distributions in aquatic systems around the world.  Over the past decade, the Fisheries-Independent Monitoring (FIM) program of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) has used S-BRUVs like the array shown in Fig. 1 to study fish populations associated with natural and artificial reef habitats of the West Florida Shelf (WFS).  This effort has involved thousands of 30-minute deployments in waters 10–180 m deep, from Pensacola to the Florida Keys.

An example of some of the sampled artificial habitat of the West Florida Shelf.

Some advantages of S-BRUVs are that they are minimally invasive to the fish community and habitat, they are less selective than other gears, and they provide behavioral information.  However, despite these advantages, it is difficult to determine the distance from which fishes are attracted to the bait during a deployment.  This complicates fish-habitat relationships observed in the video by adding uncertainty regarding the total area sampled and whether fishes observed were in fact associated with the habitat targeted.  Improving our current understanding of the range of attraction of fishes to an S-BRUV is an important step toward determining absolute species abundances.

Hydroacoustics use sound to detect fish in the water column in the same way that a typical fish finder works.  Hydroacoustics can be used to rapidly survey a large area and are even less invasive than S-BRUVs in that they do not influence fish distributions.  These features make hydroacoustics a complementary method to the S-BRUV surveys conducted by the FIM program.  Figure 2 shows the results from one survey designed to evaluate spatial redistributions of fishes that take place during an S-BRUV deployment relative to before the gear entered the water.  At this site located in 61 m water depth offshore of Panama City, fish abundance increased near the S-BRUV during deployment and decreased to the northwest of the site, where the current was oriented.  This information will be used to improve assessments of commercially targeted fishes, sportfish, and other ecologically valuable species throughout WFS waters.

Fig. 2. Mean volume backscatter in the lower 5 m of the water column from a hydroacoustic survey over several patches of low-relief habitat before (left panel) and during (right panel) deployment of an S-BRUV video array.  The dots represent data points that were interpolated throughout the 375 x 375 m survey grid, hashed areas are patches of previously identified habitat, and brighter colors indicate higher fish abundances.  The S-BRUV was deployed in the center of the survey grid and an arrow in the right panel shows the direction of the prevailing bottom current distributing the odor plume from the bait.