Category Archives: Notes from the Field

“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.

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.

Surveying With Autonomous Acoustic Recording Units

By Tyler Pittman

Autonomous acoustic recording units (ARUs) are a popular technology for surveying and monitoring vocal wildlife populations from bats to birds to marine mammals. ARUs are popular because they can collect huge quantities of data across large areas and time spans with very little effort. However, the sheer quantity of data requires advanced computer programs for efficient processing, and current commercial software cannot effectively detect species like wild turkeys that have calls that cannot be easily distinguished from background noises.

An autonomous acoustic recording unit, pictured here.

In 2017, after manually listening to thousands of hours of wild turkey audio, FWRI began development of a custom program to automate the processing of these audio files by partnering with researchers from Southeastern Universities Research Association (SURA). Commercially available programs are based on the concept of matching the spectrogram of a potential turkey call with that from a known turkey call (i.e., a template).  Our approach differs from that by breaking the template into smaller different sized and positioned sections called sub-masks. Additionally, our program weights the sub-masks either positively or negatively toward correct identification and allows the user to assign a set of rules to define which sub-masks take priority over other sub-masks. To date, the preliminary versions of the program have proven to be effective at identifying wild turkey gobbles from unknown audio recording on training datasets. The best-documented performance was 83% correct identifications with only 17% false-positive detections compared to 99% false-positive detection rates from commercially available software. Testing will continue in 2019 to further develop the program in to a useful and efficient tool for monitoring populations of birds and other wildlife.

Note: Cover image shows a recording of a wild turkey gobble represented as the amplitude of sound plotted against frequency and time, also known as a spectrogram.

Employing New Technology to Indirectly Monitor Karenia Brevis

By Matt Garrett and Kelsey Marvin

Over 14,000 water samples were processed during the Karenia brevis bloom that began in November 2017 and ended in February 2019. Each of these samples represents a single moment in space and time, and both routine and event response sampling play a critical role in tracking blooms. Marine and estuarine environments –and blooms of K. brevis – are dynamic and can change rapidly over space and time. To help bridge gaps between sampling events, the HAB Group has been working to adapt a new passive sampling technology to monitor for brevetoxins produced by K. brevis in the Gulf of Mexico called Solid Phase Adsorption Toxin Tracking, or SPATT. SPATT uses tiny resin beads that passively adsorb free brevetoxins in the water. These beads are sealed in small mesh bags and can be deployed in various locations (on fishing piers, docks, buoy lines) for upwards to a month at a time, and once the bags are recovered, toxins can then be extracted and measured. Since this method only measures toxin exposure over time, it cannot be used to infer actual cell concentrations, like those provided on our weekly maps.  Instead, scientists can infer K. brevis’ presence and general concentration at a particular location and depth during the deployment period.

SPATT bags, which are nylon mesh bags filled with resin, are attached to a bouyed line at different depths, along with a temperature and light sensor attached at each depth. The SPATT bag on the left is seen just prior to deployment, while the image on the right is a bag harvested after one month.

Using SPATT bag analyses to detect toxins offshore and/or at depth is of particular interest, since sub-surface samples are beyond the reach of remote sensing, and most samples are taken within 0.5 m of the surface and/or in nearshore coastal and estuarine systems. Analyses of recently deployed SPATT bags have shown higher concentrations at depth, both when compared to concentrations at the surface and in previous months. These types of measurements are increasingly critical, as evidence points to bloom formation occurring at depth in the offshore environment. Information about bloom conditions at depth is particularly important to have for use in predictive models of bloom development and transport to the nearshore coast, where a bloom can become a severe red tide event.

Use of this technology in the lab and field has been very promising! In the future, the HAB Group hopes to be able to deploy SPATT bags in multiple locations spanning nearshore to offshore so that they can serve as an early warning sentinel system for K. brevis blooms. SPATT technology is currently used in other parts of the U.S. to monitor different marine and freshwater toxins, and FWRI HAB researchers also plan to determine how this method could be used to measure and track the multiple toxins produced by other HAB species in Florida waters.

New bouyed SPATT line prepped for deployment on 4/1/19.

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

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.