One in a series of videos celebrating our virtual MarineQuest 2020 event. FWRI’s Fisheries Independent Monitoring program monitors marine fisheries populations statewide. Here, two biologists explain fish anatomy and physiology, and we will learn about various species’ roles in the food web.
Florida’s bay scallops (Argopectin irradians) have been called the potato-chips of the marine ecosystem – everything loves to eat them. Short-lived and widely consumed by a large array of predators – including humans – bay scallop numbers can fluctuate from year to year. Declining populations in many areas of the Gulf Coast prompted this effort, called the Scallop Sitter Project that began in 2016 to restore bay scallops in Florida’s panhandle. Overall goals of this project are to increase scallop abundance and recreational fishing opportunities in the Florida Panhandle. The Scallop Sitter Project is a volunteer program that involves local community members in the ongoing scallop restoration efforts of FWRI biologists.
The project is funded by restoration money set aside after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and is intended to increase recreational fishing opportunities in the Florida Panhandle. The objectives of the project are to increase depleted scallop populations in some bays and reintroduce scallops in other suitable areas from which scallops have disappeared. Restoration efforts are focused on coastal estuaries within the Florida Panhandle.
FWRI biologists collect scallops before the opening of the scallop season and place them in cages in an exclusion zone in St. Joseph Bay that is protected from harvest. In addition, every year adult scallops are transported from St. Joseph Bay to a hatchery which then provides scientists with juvenile scallops the following year. Placing scallops in cages protects them from predators while also increasing the likelihood that scallops will successfully produce offspring during spawning season. In addition, biologists provide community volunteers with scallops to place in cages in St. Joseph and St. Andrew Bays. Volunteers maintain cages of scallops and report monthly survival and salinity data.
Monitoring of bay scallop spat (juvenile bay scallops) settlement is done using spat collectors during the peak settlement period for bay scallops, from August through March. In addition, spat that settle on collectors are used for restoration purposes. Surveys of adult scallop abundance are conducted in the spring and fall by diving and counting scallops along a transect. Planting scallops in cages and maintaining scallops is done throughout the year. The scallop sitter project takes place from July through December each year. Monitoring of scallop harvest is done through aerial surveys and boat ramp intercepts during the scallop season, which is from July through September. Spawning and grow-out of scallops for restoration purposes takes place from August through April of each year.
The Division of Marine Fisheries Management may use these modeling efforts to manage the recreational scallop fishery in Florida. The project began in April 2018 and is expected to end in December 2026. Funds from a Natural Resource Damage Assessment grant helped fund this project, which came from restoration money set aside after the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. If this project is successful, the model could be used to restore scallops in other areas of the state.
Due to the current pandemic, managers have decided to cancel the Scallop Sitter program for the 2020 summer season in an effort to protect the health of our volunteers. We want to thank all of our volunteers that were interested in participating in this year’s event. Please stay tuned for updates about next year’s Scallop Sitter program. We cannot wait to work together with our volunteers again soon!
By Sarah Burnsed, Hayden Menendez, and Sue Lowerre-Barbieri
Gag grouper (Mycteroperca microlepis) are an iconic Florida fish that may be in trouble. All fish begin as females in estuarine nursery grounds, but as they age they move further offshore, with the oldest, largest fish turning into males (Figure 1). This life history and spatial ecology pattern makes it difficult to decide on the best measure of reproductive potential. Based on females-only, the last stock assessment found them to not be overfished or undergoing overfishing. But the same assessment predicted only approximately 2-3% of the population was male and since then commercial fishermen have not been meeting quota, leaving fishermen and scientists concerned that this stock may not be as healthy as assumed.
Beginning in 2015, the Movement Ecology and Reproductive Resilience (MERR) Lab at FWRI began a series of gag studies to evaluate factors affecting gag reproductive potential. Empirical data derived from these studies, including estimates of fecundity-at-age, spawning frequency and sex ratios, and spatio—temporal patterns of sex change and sex ratio, will help to refine estimates of long-term biological productivity of the stock and in turn better manage this important fishery. We describe our three major gag program initiatives below.
Our initial study (December 2015- May 2018) off the Florida Panhandle targeted the best-known gag spawning habitat ~50-100 miles off Panama City Beach. Three areas were sampled, with varying protection from fishing: (1) Madison Swanson, an MPA (2) The Edges, open half the year to fishing (3) an open area. Twice monthly during gag spawning season (December-May), we departed lab headquarters in St. Petersburg to drive to Panama City and boarded chartered fishing boats for multiple day cruises. We captured gag using hook-and-line and recorded parameters of time landed, location, depth and ventral pigmentation. We collected video data using an unbaited camera array with a ~360° field of view to assess habitat, spawning behavior and abundance. We evaluated all gag for lengths, weight, genetics, mercury, age, sex, hormones and maturity. Data from our collections were integrated with data from FIM surveys, FDM, and a collaborating commercial fisherman to test assumptions about sex change and spatial management in gag. Results indicate overall gag abundance is low, MPAs do not protect all recruiting males (as previously assumed) and current regulations are not sufficient for males to recover to historic levels. To read more on this study, please see: Lowerre-Barbieri S, Menendez H, Bickford J, Switzer TS, Barbieri L, Koenig C (2020) Testing assumptions about sex change and spatial management in the protogynous gag grouper, Mycteroperca microlepis. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 639:199-214. https://doi.org/10.3354/meps13273.
To assess how these results might differ with location, a second study was begun in December 2018 (extending through May 2021). This study uses similar methods but is focused ~100 miles offshore of Tampa Bay at (1) Steamboat Lumps, an MPA and (2) the Sticky Grounds, an open area south of Steamboat Lumps, originally brought to our attention by fishermen and confirmed as a spawning site by preliminary sampling. Both habitats are quite different from those in the Panhandle with Steamboat Lumps having considerably less relief than Madison Swanson and the Sticky Grounds characterized by patchy high relief in depths greater than sites sampled before. Because gag spawn at these offshore sites in the windy winter months, it is not surprising previous sampling in this area has been limited due to uncooperative seas and day trips requiring 18 hour runs from shore. We are fortunate to again work with an impressive group of captains willing to safely execute these trips and share their knowledge of the gag fishery to increase our success. By expanding the area of collection, we’ll be able to identify and quantify gag spawning aggregations, sex ratios, and reproductive potential off the West Central Florida Shelf and compare these parameters to those collected in the initial study to determine spatial and temporal differences within and between study areas.
These studies, and the integration of their results with the larger sampling efforts of the FIM reef fish survey and FDM, changed our understanding of where and when gag change sex. Previously, it was believed that this occurred only on the spawning grounds and that spawning ground MPAs would protect males. However, we found fish transitioning from females to males not only on the spawning grounds but also in pre-spawning female-only aggregations. Thus, there is a need to better understand pre-spawning aggregations, their seasonal cues, and spatial consistency, as well as sex-specific movement ecology. Research on these questions was started in December 2017 when the same fisherman who provided samples from a gag pre-spawning aggregation site for our first study began working with us to dart tag and release gag at his nearshore site.
In 2019 and 2020 we increased this effort to include scientific sampling of pre-spawning gag aggregations, dart tagging a larger number of fish, and beginning a program to acoustically tag females (Figure 3 and cover image). Our recaptures so far suggest very high site fidelity of females to pre-spawning aggregation sites, as well as much higher catch per unit effort at these sites than on the spawning grounds. We expect recapture rates at these sites to decrease as fish begin moving offshore. In addition, acoustic tag detections will help us understand where these females move to once they leave these sites. Our ability to detect them throughout the Gulf is made possible because of the iTAG (Integrated Tracking of Aquatic Animals in the Gulf of Mexico) network, which enables researchers to share detections on their receivers that are not their study species. This network and the data exchange are FWRI initiatives, with the digital exchange developed and maintained by the FWRI Information Science and Management section. These telemetry detections along with dart tag recaptures and reproductive data will collectively enable us to better understand how this species’ spatial ecology affects vulnerability to fishing and the measures needed to allow more males to recruit to the population, hopefully in turn keeping this valuable fish on dinner plates across the state.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (FWC-FWRI) Mercury Program conducted by the Fisheries-Independent Monitoring (FIM) Program is one of the most comprehensive efforts in the United States for monitoring mercury concentrations in marine and estuarine fishes. Mercury is a toxic metallic element that has been shown to bioaccumulate in fish tissue. Humans and wildlife that consume fish can potentially ingest significant levels of mercury in their diet. In 1989, the FWC-FWRI began to examine total mercury levels in fish muscle tissue from many economically and ecologically important species to better understand mercury contamination in Florida’s marine fishes. With analytical cooperation from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the program’s initial goal was to document mercury levels in Florida’s commercial and recreational fishery species to assist the development of regional Fish Consumption Advisories. In 2006, the FWC-FWRI began analyzing mercury samples in-house at the Indian River Field Laboratory. This addition expanded the program’s analytical capabilities and its focus to now include ecologically important predator and prey species in marine and estuarine habitats. Currently, the Indian River Field Laboratory is responsible for all analyses of marine fish mercury samples within the waters under Florida’s jurisdiction.
To date, we have examined the concentration of total mercury in more than 113,000 fish representing over 350 species. These species represented all major trophic groups from primary consumers (e.g., anchovies, herrings, mullets) to apex predators (e.g., mackerels, tunas, billfish, sharks). Most individuals we examined contained low concentrations of mercury, but concentrations in individual fish varied greatly within and among species. Overall, fish concentrations ranged from 0.001 ppm to 32.0 ppm, yet only 10% of all individuals analyzed had tissue concentrations above the U.S. EPA “Choices to Avoid” consumption guideline of approximately 0.47 ppm. Species with very low average mercury concentrations tended to be those that feed on plankton, detritus, invertebrates, or small fishes. Apex predators typically had the highest mercury concentrations. In most species, mercury concentration increased as fish size and age increased.
The data generated by the FWC-FWRI Mercury Program have been used to inform the public and to weigh the potential risks and health benefits of consuming common fishery species in Florida. These data have also advanced scientific research regarding ecological tracers and ecosystem function. Indian River Field Laboratory scientists have shared Florida mercury results through numerous professional presentations at scientific conferences, technical reports, and more than 20 publications in scientific journals. Ongoing cooperative collaborations regarding mercury with researchers within and outside of the FWC-FWRI currently involve stable isotope applications, point- and non-point source identification, ecosystem-wide assessments, and evaluation of mercury effects on marine fishes at the sub-cellular level. Sampling in Florida waters is continuing, and FWC-FWRI research relating mercury to fish age, feeding ecology, and the trophic structure of Florida’s marine and estuarine ecosystems will help us better understand concentrations of this element in marine fishes and their habitats.
By Courtney Saari, Dave Blewett, and Tim MacDonald
Fisheries scientists from FWRI’s Fisheries-Independent Monitoring (FIM) and Fish Biology section have been collaborating with scientists and managers from the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD), Bonefish Tarpon Trust (BTT), Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) and FWC’s Habitat and Species division (HSC) to assess restoration techniques for fish nursery habitats in the Charlotte Harbor Estuary. This partnership formed almost a decade ago when SWFWMD was in the initial phase of the Coral Creek Ecosystem Restoration project and biologists observed large numbers of juvenile Tarpon in a small section of the relic man-made canal system that was next in line for restoration. After this discovery, fisheries scientists from BTT and FWRI and restoration scientists from SWFWMD all agreed that the next phase of restoration presented a unique opportunity to examine different restored habitat designs as they relate to juvenile sport fish habitat use.
The Coral Creek Ecosystem Restoration project is taking place in the Charlotte Harbor State Preserve on the Cape Haze Peninsula (cover image). The project consists of several phases of hydrologic and habitat restoration of approximately 2,600 acres of degraded and impacted wetlands within the preserve (SWFWMD 2010). One phase of this project converted six relic man-made canals into marsh ponds with varying degrees of connectivity to the open creek (Figure 2). A limited connection to the estuary is an important feature commonly observed in nursery habitat studies involving tarpon and common snook, where tidal flow and access is restricted seasonally (ex., rain flooded marshes meet summer high tides) or driven by weather events (ex. tropical storms and hurricanes). Restricted access seems to be important for recruitment and likely helps separate the juvenile fish from large predatory fish that cannot access these habitats or tolerate harsh wetland conditions. Therefore, the restoration of the canals used an experimental design with habitat connections in mind. Four of the canals were designed to be marsh ponds with an earthen sill at the entrance to limit tidal exchange and access by predatory fish, while the other two were designed as marsh ponds open to tidal flow. The constructed canal sills were augmented with bagged and loose fossilized shell to achieve desired elevations. In addition, within each connection type, the marsh ponds have varying depth contours, with the presence/absence of a deep hole habitat.
A 3-year project to follow up on these restoration efforts, made possible through Charlotte County’s RESTORE Act funding (Charlotte County 2015), is currently underway, where FIM staff are characterizing fish assemblages and juvenile sport fish use of 1) the restored marsh ponds, 2) natural marsh ponds in the nearby landscape, and 3) the associated tidal creek (Coral Creek) into which the restored ponds discharge and two adjacent reference creeks. Concurrently, our partners at BTT are tagging juvenile sport fish and tracking movements of these fish in and around the restored marsh ponds and FWRI is tracking juvenile sport fish movements in the natural ponds. Characterizing the physical attributes of these restore and natural marsh ponds (e.g., depths, frequency of tidal inundation) and the dynamics of fish use (e.g., fish density and movement between ponds) will inform future restoration and preservation efforts for juvenile sport fish habitat.
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.
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.
By Alejandro Acosta, Jennifer Herbig, Jessica Keller, Danielle Morley and Colin Howe
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.
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/
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.
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.
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.
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.
Gags (Mycteroperca microlepis) support extensive commercial and recreational fisheries in the eastern Gulf of Mexico. A 2016 stock assessment did not support earlier assessments that indicated that gags are currently overfished and continue to undergo overfishing (South East Data Assessment and Review 33 update). Considering the status of Gag in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, it is especially important to improve understanding of its juvenile recruitment processes.
Past research has shown that juvenile Gags generally occupy structured polyhaline (18-30 practical salinity units) habitats such as seagrass beds and oyster reefs for several months before emigrating to nearshore reefs (Figure 1). The reliance of Gags on estuarine nurseries, combined with a brief period of estuarine occupancy, greatly facilitates the accurate characterization of the strength of juvenile recruitment.
A comprehensive examination of long-term (10+ years) FWC/FWRI fisheries-independent data was conducted to characterize habitat selection and recruitment of juvenile Gags. Results from Apalachicola Bay, Tampa Bay and Charlotte Harbor habitat suitability analyses indicated that juvenile Gags selected polyhaline habitats with sloping bottoms and extensive seagrass coverage. These analyses indicated that the near shore, deeper water polyhaline seagrass habitats had been under sampled (Switzer et al. 2012).
A multi-gear survey (183-m haul seine and 6.1-m trawl) was designed to supplement long-term, fisheries-independent survey data on estuarine-dependent reef-associated fishes. The supplemental survey design specifically considered juvenile Gag recruitment ecology and thus targeted the deep, polyhaline (>18 psu) seagrass habitats that are used by age-0 Gags. Potential sampling sites were limited to generally polyhaline waters that contained at least 50% bottom coverage of seagrass, had a measurable slope and were between 1.0 and 7.6 m deep.
This supplemental sampling was initiated in 2008 and polyhaline seagrass beds were sampled by bottom trawls (6.1-m otter trawl) and haul seines (183-m haul seines) in seven estuaries along Florida’s Gulf coast (Figure 2). Apalachicola Bay, Charlotte Harbor and Tampa Bay have been routinely sampled since the late 1990s; St. Andrew Bay and three estuaries in the Big Bend region between Cedar Key and Cape San Blas (St. Marks, Ecofina, and Steinhatchee), where Gag recruitment had been documented, were added for this study and have become part of the continuing survey.
Analyses of the data collected in the long-term and supplemental surveys (2008-2012) demonstrated the effectiveness of this sampling approach. The size ranges of Gags collected in both studies were similar, but age-0 individuals were captured more frequently and the catch-per-unit-effort (CPUE) was significantly higher in the supplemental surveys (Switzer et al 2015). These analyses will not only enhance our understanding of recruitment processes for juvenile Gags in the eastern Gulf but will also provide valuable insight into observed patterns of habitat use and the relative importance of various habitat types. Nevertheless, additional information on habitat availability, combined with a better understanding of the estuarine systems’ relative contributions to nearshore Gag populations, will be required to maximize the utility of these data in predicting fisheries productivity.
Strong Gag year-classes have been documented as persisting as the fish grow and enter the fishery. Accordingly, accurate estimation and prediction of juvenile recruitment is critical to the effective assessment and management of at-risk fisheries. Variability of estuarine nekton assemblages is valuable as an indicator of environmental quality. Therefore, the patterns discerned from the supplemental sampling have important implications for fisheries managers.
The internal newsletter of the FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute