Category Archives: Notes from the Field

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.

“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.