All posts by Jonathan Veach

Coral Rescue Update

By Stephanie Schopmeyer

Last month, 90 corals were transferred from Keys Marine Lab (KML) in Marathon, FL to their new home at Florida Aquarium’s Center for Conservation (FLAQ) in Apollo Beach–in response to the Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease event currently affecting the Florida Reef Tract.  This transfer frees up space at KML to allow for upcoming rescue collections.

Since September 2018, FWC staff have been successfully caring for rescued corals, with more than 99% still alive and healthy.  View more images from the Coral Rescue efforts: https://bit.ly/2EcfooI

Director Message

Thanks for Stepping Up

By Gil McRae, FWRI Director

Remember the days when your workload was predictable, and you could plan and dictate when tasks were tackled and completed?  Well, neither do I.  One fact of life for us as public employees is that we are expected to be flexible and adaptable, and often we are the first (or only) responders associated with potentially damaging environmental events.  In most cases we cannot plan or budget for the rare events like fish and wildlife disease or die-off events, and the occurrence of large scale environmental problems can be a real challenge relative to prioritizing staff time and resource allocation.  Often additional workload is created when we return to postponed or rescheduled activities.  Despite these challenges, FWC and FWRI staff have always risen to the occasion in response to unforeseen environmental events, and I never cease to be amazed at your resolve, commitment and creativity in dealing with these issues.

This year has been particularly challenging with the red tide that affected a large portion of the state.  This red tide, which is still lingering today, has impacted tourism, killed millions of fish and hundreds of sea turtles, manatees and dolphins. The event also created tremendous demand on our staff for a very prolonged period.  Our Harmful Algal Bloom Group lead the way continually adjusting to unpredictable and seemingly endless streams of water samples coming into our St. Pete headquarters for analysis.  To date, over 14,000 water samples have been examined tied to this event.  The HAB group also developed innovative approaches to monitoring and communicating results including aerial surveys with the assistance of FWC Law Enforcement and a near-real time interactive sample reporting tool developed with the invaluable assistance of our communications and GIS specialists.  Our fish health team monitored the fish kill hotline and fielded a record number of calls, responded to countless inquiries and provided data and information in a timely manner.  Our manatee folks, particularly those in the Southwest region, worked long hours under very demanding conditions to respond to an overwhelming number of manatee carcasses and the occasional rescue while assisting partners in responding to dolphin strandings.  Our sea turtle team also distinguished themselves by responding to and documenting a record number of sea turtle mortalities associated with this event.  Our fisheries team spun up specific monitoring programs to assess the effects of red tide on our fisheries, generating data that will be critically important in defining the short and long-term effects of the event. Through it all, our administrative support team managed logistics and budget that form the foundation of an effective response and your leadership team was there every time I needed support.

I have often said that FWRI staff are at their best when the challenges seem insurmountable.  I can’t tell you the number of times that I have been contacted by representatives from other agencies praising our response capability, professionalism, and quality of the work you all do associated with unforeseen events.  It is not lost on me that the time demands, and stress associated with this work and the lost time with family and friends takes a toll.  I trust that you all take comfort in the fact that you have leadership that understands and supports you and is willing to do what it takes to make us collectively successful.  Although I join each of you in keeping my fingers crossed that these events do not become routine, I take a great deal of comfort in knowing that whatever comes our way we have demonstrated the ability to rise to the challenge.

Research Spotlight

Fish Communities Associated with Hard Bottom Habitats in Tampa Bay; What Lives in These Recently Mapped Areas?

By Kerry Flaherty-Walia et al

Hard bottom habitats such as corals, sponges, limestone ledges and artificial reefs are known to support diverse fish communities in offshore areas of the Gulf of Mexico. Less is known about inshore hard bottom habitats in Tampa Bay. Our study, funded by the Tampa Bay Environmental Restoration Fund (TBERF), was designed to answer research questions about (1) the distribution of hard bottom habitats in Tampa Bay, (2) the fish species that are using these habitats, (3) the temporal and spatial use of these habitats by fish and finally (4) how fish use these hard bottom habitats in comparison to other habitats within Tampa Bay.

A baited remote underwater video setup deployed at a natural hard bottom site in Tampa Bay.

Using baited remote underwater video (BRUV) surveys and timed-drop hook-and-line sampling, data were collected on species composition and abundance for natural and artificial hard bottom habitats within Tampa Bay. Species that have not been or are rarely collected in fisheries-independent monitoring efforts within Tampa Bay have been documented. Information on hard bottom habitat use was collected for a variety of economically important species, including reef fish that are not typically considered estuarine dependent (i.e., red grouper). These results suggest that Tampa Bay hard bottom habitats function as an extension of nearshore coastal hard bottom, attracting species not normally seen within the estuary. In addition, these habitats probably serve as a nursery for emigrating estuarine-dependent reef fish as they move to shallow nearshore reefs farther offshore (e.g., gag, gray snapper). Hooked gear sampling yielded accurate lengths on many of these key estuarine dependent reef fish species and provided data on species that are commonly captured by the recreational fishery.

A bonnethead shark caught in Tampa Bay during the survey.

The grant-funded portion of this study was scheduled to end in 2018, but in response to the severe red tide bloom that occurred during the study period, an additional year of sampling will be conducted to observe any potential changes in these estuarine hard bottom fish assemblages. This ongoing research will help resource managers prioritize habitat conservation and artificial reef enhancement throughout Tampa Bay and surrounding waters and could easily be a model for other estuarine systems along the Florida coast. For more information email Kerry.Flaherty-Walia@MyFWC.com.

A gag grouper caught during the survey.

Summer Bass Tournament Live-Well Study

By Ted Lange

FWC’s Black Bass Management Plan (BBMP) committed FWC to work with stakeholder groups to mitigate negative public perceptions of club-level bass fishing tournaments.  Negative perceptions identified included bass mortality, crowding at boat ramps and poor boating and angling ethics by some tournament anglers. Stakeholders also expressed positive perceptions of bass tournaments through the BBMP including promotion of fishing as well as teaching ethics and stewardship. Regardless, bass tournaments can be very high profile with potentially hundreds of club tournaments occurring in Florida waters each week throughout the year. FWRI biologists working with Division of Freshwater Fisheries staff are working to better understand and mitigate bass mortality caused by bass fishing tournaments through several projects.

The Summer Bass Tournament Live-Well Study was initiated to assess live-well water quality conditions during summer tournaments when bass are most susceptible to mortality due to warmer water which holds the least amount of oxygen. Study objectives are to 1) educate bass tournament anglers about live-well water quality conditions during summer tournaments, and 2) further refine FWC’s fish care guidelines for best live-well management practices under conditions specific to Florida.

Bass are weighed in.

During year one of a three summer study, FWRI biologists assessed water quality conditions at club-level tournaments (10-30 participating boats) based on anglers preferred practices. In year two, biologists prescribed specific live-well management practices to random tournament boats and evaluated the resultant water quality conditions. In year three, biologists ran controlled experiments with wild caught fish acclimated to hatchery conditions under three varying management practices. Through controlled experiments, blood stress parameters in bass exposed to these management practices were measured, and a post tournament mortality assessment was conducted.

Year one results, focused primarily on temperature and dissolved oxygen (DO), confirmed that competitive anglers manage their live-wells in a variety of ways resulting in a wide range of water quality conditions.  During year two, anglers were assigned specific live-well management regimes which included flow through only (near constant exchange of live-well water), fill and recirculate only (no exchange of water once filled), and fill and recirculate with one exchange of water midday along with the use of salt and ice. Year two results, more intensive and including more water quality parameters, suggested that anglers were reasonably able to maintain adequate levels of DO while minimizing the buildup of ammonia and carbon dioxide in live-well water.  During the summer months, when lake surface temperature can exceed 30 °C, it is critical that those holding fish in captivity to manage live-wells conditions to maintain or even stimulate the recovery of bass during the period of confinement.

FWC staff takes a blood sample from a bass.

During year three, biologists repeated year two studies with wild-caught bass held in the research tanks at the Florida Bass Conservation Center where they underwent a simulated angling event prior to being placed in controlled condition live-wells representing the three management regimes. Stress parameters of glucose, lactate, cortisol, chloride, and osmolality in blood plasma were sampled both pre and post live-well confinement to assess the effects of the live-well environment on bass physiology.  Finally, all bass were assessed for a seven-day period for post tournament mortality.

Blood samples are currently being analyzed by the University of Florida Veterinary Lab and the Ruskin Tropical Aquaculture Laboratory, UF IFAS.  Study results will be utilized in coordination with other study components investigating tournament mortality to update FWC fish care guidelines to provide Florida bass anglers with live-well best management practices that they can readily implement during summer months.

Hurricane Michael Displaced Vessel Response

By Jonathan Veach and Timyn Rice

With Hurricane Irma still fresh in the minds of many Floridians, Hurricane Michael made a ferocious landfall as a high-end category 4 storm near Mexico Beach on Oct. 10t, 2018. Michael was the strongest storm on record to strike the Florida Panhandle and was the strongest hurricane in terms of maximum sustained wind speed to strike the contiguous United States since Andrew in 1992. At least 60 deaths were attributed to the storm.

On Oct. 18t, FWC and the U.S. Coast Guard received a FEMA mission assignment under ESF-10 (hazardous materials) to remove the pollution threat caused by displaced vessels within state waters, similar to the response after Hurricane Irma. The total mission assignment funding is $18,600,000 and ends February 16, 2019. 1,363 displaced vessels were identified by aerial imagery and field assessments. The mission is nearly complete, with 543 targets closed out of the 544 vessels deemed as requiring action. To date, 24,381 gallons of pollutants have been recovered.

A vessel being removed from a sensitive site.

FWC Law Enforcement staffed the Incident Command Post and provided uniformed officers and patrol vessels at all recovery operations. FWRI led the Environmental Unit (EU) which identified 341 targets in environmentally sensitive areas such as salt marshes, seagrass beds, aquatic preserves, historical sites and other critical habitats. Responders used ESRI Collector and Survey 123 applications to track and document progress throughout all phases of the response. The EU established a set of Best Management Practices and provided training to the vessel response teams to protect wildlife and minimize the impacts during recovery and removal operations. Hurricanes are a reality of Florida and FWC takes these operations with the respect they deserve.

Fish and Wildlife Health Staff Investigate Ulcerative Skin Lesions in Lionfish

By Catalina Brown

In mid-August 2017, the FWC Division of Marine Fisheries Management’s lionfish group contacted the Fish and Wildlife Health Staff to confirm they collected lionfish (invasive Indo-Pacific lionfish Pterois volitans/miles complex) with significant ulcerative skin lesions approximately 30 miles off Pinellas County.

Ulcerated lionfish were also documented offshore Pensacola by local divers on Aug. 5. Following these initial reports, lionfish presenting with ulcers have also been reported in waters of the, East Florida Shelf, the Florida Keys, and the Bahamas as well as throughout the Caribbean Sea, including offshore of the Cayman Islands, Bonaire and Belize. FWC’s Fish and Wildlife Health group are collaborating with UF and Okaloosa County to obtain specimens and conduct necropsies to determine the etiology of the disease. In conjunction with UF, FWC have evaluated the specimens for parasitic infection as well as bacterial, fungal and viral infection.

This ongoing research is critical because the pathogen could be non‐specific and impact other marine sport fish species. Histological analysis has demonstrated tissues that appear to be healing. A causative agent has not been identified, but FWC continue to receive periodic reports of ulcerated fish and try to get specimens for analysis as they become available.

A Fond Farewell to Ed Matheson, FIM’s Top Taxonomist

By Sean Keenan and Theresa Warner, with much assistance from coworkers

Dr. Richard “Ed” Matheson Jr., an Associate Research Scientist at the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (FWRI), is retiring after 32 years with the Institute. A Masters from the College of William & Mary and a Ph.D. from Texas A&M University provided Ed with the basis for a career focused on the systematics and ecology of fishes. Over the years, his research interests have included Gerreid systematics, seagrass-associated fishes, fishes of tidal-rivers, fish community structure in Florida Bay, seagrass die-offs, Everglades restoration, and fishes of the West Florida Shelf.

Starting with FWRI St. Petersburg in 1987, Ed has seen the Institute transition through several agencies and name changes to become what it is today. Initially hired into the Coastal Zone Management group with the Fish Biology program, Ed became the chief ichthyologist for the Fisheries-Independent Monitoring (FIM) program in the late 1990s. With FIM’s statewide, comprehensive sampling, rare or difficult to identify species are frequently encountered and they invariably come to Ed for verification.

Ed is seen here field sampling in Florida Bay.

The accurate identification of specimens is vital to evaluating distribution and abundance trends of native and exotic species. Ed has been instrumental in developing, maintaining and ensuring the near perfect fish identification proficiency of FWRI staff. He regularly creates and presents fish identification training sessions that focus on key sportfish and difficult to identify species groups like gobies, mojarras and sunfishes. His sessions always include a presentation, access to slides and identification keys, and typically include a ‘hands-on’ component that reinforces what staff learned in the presentation. Ed’s fish identification contributions beyond FWRI have been equally important. He frequently confirms identifications of specimens being cataloged in the Ichthyology Collection of the Florida State Board of Conservation and receives requests for assistance from other groups such as FWC Law Enforcement.

The professional impact of Ed’s work at FWRI is immeasurable. He has been the lead author on five peer-reviewed manuscripts and he has co-authored over 20 manuscripts and over 10 reports. He has served as adjunct faculty at the University of South Florida (USF) and as a graduate committee member for students at USF and the University of Central Florida. Ed has participated in innumerable one day estuarine sampling trips, eight multiday research cruises, and dove in the Johnson Sea-Link submersible to 1,100 feet. He is a member of the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists, American Fisheries Society and Sigma Xi. Ed has served as a reviewer for scientific journals including Bulletin of Marine Science, Estuaries, Southwestern Naturalist and Fishery Bulletin.

Ed is one of the friendliest and most approachable scientists at FWRI. His sense of humor, pleasant demeanor, and professional expertise have made him an invaluable and irreplaceable asset to FWC.

Best Fishes, Ed! We will miss you.

Communications Corner

Media Training Seminar

On January 7th Doc Kokol, a communications specialist and Director of the Office of Strategic Initiatives, visited FWRI to give a presentation and training day on the ins-and-out of working with the media. Here are a few of the highlights:

  • Bigger words are not always better. In a media interview, most of your audience does not have a PhD in biology, like you may have, so you must adjust your language accordingly. Don’t speak to the reporter like they’re uneducated, but also don’t give a high-level explanation with lots of technical jargon. Remember, you’re not dumbing down your subject matter – you’re putting it into layman’s terms. A true expert can explain complex aspects of their field to a sixth grader.
  • Anticipate and practice. If you’re an expert in your field, you can probably anticipate a lot of the questions a reporter is going to ask you ahead of time. Write them down and practice in front of a mirror, or even better, on camera. Pay special attention to the questions you don’t want to be asked, because you’ll probably be asked them.
  • 27 words is all you have. Doc highlighted a study where researchers looked at hundreds of interviews and determined that the interviewee had only 27 words, 9 seconds and three messages before the interviewer started cutting them off or paraphrasing what you said, raising the chances of getting something wrong. Try to pre-prepare a statement that is succinct, but fully answers the question.  
  • You don’t know what you don’t know. Never try and answer a question you don’t know the answer to – it could get you into serious trouble. Simply give the reason why you don’t know or can’t answer and tell them you can follow up or connect them with someone who can give the answer. Remember: “No, but…” Always follow your “no” with a “but” of what information you can give them. “Unfortunately, I can’t answer that, but what I can tell you is…” This technique can also help you guide the conversation away from controversial topics.
  • When in doubt, ask the Communications Office. It’s what we’re here for.

Sea Turtles and Red Tide

By Allen Foley

Red tide often kills fish, but when the concentration of Karenia brevis reaches around 100,000 cells per liter, it can also kill sea turtles, birds, dolphins and manatees. In Florida, we have been documenting stranded (i.e., dead, sick or injured) sea turtles since 1980. We have documented unusually large numbers of stranded sea turtles coincident with red tides primarily along the Gulf coast (especially in the southwest) but also along a portion of the Atlantic coast (Brevard County). These strandings are typically adult and large immature loggerheads and Kemp’s ridleys, and small immature green turtles and hawksbills. Stranding data modeling and sampling of strandings to determine brevetoxin concentrations all indicate that red tides mostly kill loggerheads and Kemp’s ridleys. There are almost no strandings attributed to red tide during some years but there are many hundreds attributed to red tide during other years.

The latest red tide event began in southwest Florida during November 2017. Since then, we have attributed 589 stranded sea turtles (252 loggerheads, 265 Kemp’s ridleys and 72 green turtles) to that red tide bloom — the largest number of stranded sea turtles we have ever attributed to a red tide. The next largest groups of these stranded sea turtles were documented during 2006 (N = 345), 2003 (N = 230), and 2005 (N = 223).

Staff Spotlight

Célia Villac, Research Scientist with the Harmful Algal Bloom Group volunteered some of her time this month to explain her work at FWRI and beyond.

What are your degrees in?

(1983) B.S. Oceanography, Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

(1996) Ph.D. Oceanography, Texas A&M University

(1991) M.S. Geography, Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

What has your professional experience been like?

Interesting, challenging, rewarding, fun…are words that come to mind. For the past 30+ years, since my undergraduate days, I have dedicated my time to studying marine phytoplankton diversity and ecology. Research opportunities have allowed me to investigate the phytoplankton of many different regions, from tropical seas to high latitude temperate waters. Phytoplankton from polar regions, however, I have seen only through samples taken by others and cultures. I have never been to the Artic/Antarctic Oceans, but I have “sailed” their waters through my microscope!

What is your typical work day like?

I am interested in species-oriented processes, a fancy way to say I am a taxonomist interested in phytoplankton space-time distributions and their environmental controlling factors. Using light and electron microscopes are part of my daily routine due to my focus on identification based on morphology. The analysis of large data sets may also be part of my day (hours at the computer) since a single field sample may have dozens of species and we need dozens, hundreds of samples to understand phytoplankton patterns in an ever-dynamic ocean. I am part of the support team that issues daily and weekly Red Tide Status reports. I also invest time in meetings and conference calls because the results based on morphology and community structure is one piece of the puzzle that fits in a much broader scenario in which other researchers contribute with information that span from ocean circulation to the molecular make-up of the species of interest, as well as their physiology and life cycle strategies.

What are you working on now or recently?

We have had an intense Red Tide season (still ongoing) so I have been deeply involved with Karenia brevis monitoring and event-response for the past few months. Since the season started in November 2017, we from the microscopy lab have analyzed about 14,000 samples taken from all over the coast of Florida. In cooperation with colleagues in our HAB group, I am currently working on a book chapter about the biogeography of Karenia blooms and I am also involved in projects that aim to unravel the diversity of another HAB species very common in our waters, the diatoms in the genus Pseudo-nitzschia (https://myfwc.com/media/12495/pseudo-nitzschia.pdf).

How is this information beneficial?

Understanding the phytoplankton population dynamics of a given region may become a powerful predictive tool, a key component in HAB-event response. The correct identification of a species of interest is central to the problem.

What is your greatest career accomplishment?

This is a hard one to answer so maybe you should ask Mom and Dad – in their eyes, I have solved all the major problems of the world’s oceans! If I have instilled lasting interest for phytoplankton in a former (or current) student, I would consider that to be my greatest career accomplishment.

What are some of your biggest challenges?

On the daily activities front, time management to strike a balance between monitoring and research goals and demands. On the overarching science front, keeping up with the quick and ever evolving taxonomy of microalgae.

What do you like most about your career?

I think there are two components. For one, I really enjoy phytoplankton taxonomy and ecology. Not only the organisms are beautiful and thus fun to look at but the dynamics of phytoplankton, either in the real world or in a laboratory flask, is fascinating. This world, invisible to the naked eye, has critters that can switch between being auto- to heterotrophs, that can perform long vertical migrations despite minute size, that can exude a chemical potent enough to kill a large mammal. Amazing! The second component is that research and teaching, at least in my book, mean relating to people, cooperating, exchanging ideas, constant learning – these experiences are what bring meaning to what I do from day to day.

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

A big YES here. I learned to love and respect the sea as a child. I decided I wanted to work with marine biology during my senior year as an exchange student at Bexley Highschool, Columbus, Ohio. My undergraduate final research project was on Marine Phytoplankton and I’ve stuck with it ever since. Moreover, I already knew I wanted to combine research and teaching/mentoring into my routine way back during my undergraduate years. No doubts; no regrets.

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

My advice will have to be taken with a grain of salt because I am one of those few individuals who live in a special bubble: I have the privilege of making a living doing something I love. To a young scientist, I would say: Make sure to follow your passion and be aware that changing your mind and realigning expectations may be part of the process. The process is actually way more important than the product. Be open to work with others, to learn from others. And, of course, exercise and drink water.

What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

I enjoy going to the movies, cooking, reading, exercising (hiking, yoga, running, swimming, snowshoeing when in Michigan – all in moderation), and skyping with my family in Brazil. I like to strike a balance between staying quietly at home and socializing with friends and family. When a chunk of time is available, travelling is also on my list.