Much has been made of how some of the billions being spent on restoring natural water flows through the Everglades to Florida Bay could boost wading bird populations, sea grass cover and — down the line — the health of coral reefs.
But what about fish populations?
How would filtering the sheet flow south from Lake Okeechobee and increasing the volume of fresh water entering the Everglades estuary help economically-important gamefish like bass and snook?
That’s what a group of scientists from Florida International University are trying to find out, and they need anglers’ help.
FIU graduate student Jessica Lee, working under assistant professor Jennifer Rehage, recently launched the Coastal Angler Science Team (CAST), enlisting a small group of volunteer fishermen to help collect information about the movements of snook and bass found in the deep backcountry of the Upper Shark River in Everglades National Park.
During the past two years, Rehage, Lee and colleague Ross Boucek, a Ph.D student, have implanted microchips in 2,500 fish — mostly bass and snook — similar to those used by veterinarians to identify lost dogs and cats. They go back and electro-fish the river, stunning fish with a mild electrical current so they can collect and scan them with an electronic tag reader. If there’s no tag, they insert one in the underbelly. If they score a hit, they record the location, time and date, and measure and weigh the fish, then let it go.
So far, the researchers have recaptured about 200 tagged fish, mostly bass. They figure they could raise that recapture rate if they gave the scanners to more anglers. With more recaptures, they can learn more about such things as how fish respond to drought, flood, pollution, cold, and other natural and manmade stressors. Then they will have a solid scientific baseline of information before the implementation of Everglades restoration projects such as bridging more of the Tamiami Trail and creating more stormwater treatment marshes between Lake Okeechobee and the park.
“It’s to see how the fish community responds to restoration,” Rehage said.
One of the first CAST volunteers is Upper Keys cookie salesman David Rose, who has been fishing the remote interior park waters near Flamingo — and keeping detailed logs of his experiences — since 1982. Rose wears a homemade abacus of beads on his belt to count his catches and releases.
“I’ve written down every single time I’ve been out here,” Rose said, adding he once aspired to be an NFL statistician. “I want to know how many I caught and I want to see if I can beat that.”
The FIU scientists gave him a tag reader, and he’s been using it faithfully and recording data. On a recent outing, Rose and buddies Mike Dekker and Larry Frischman caught and released 15 snook and two bass in the Upper Shark River in a couple hours of throwing plastic worms and topwater baits. They scanned each fish, and two of the snook bore FIU tags.
“I swear he was a scientist in a previous life,” Boucek said of Rose.
Rose said he doesn’t need any special incentive to assist with the research.
“Why would you not want to know the population of the species out here,” Rose said. “This is an incredible place, right in the middle of the Everglades. This is the only place in the world you can catch a snook, a redfish, a bass and a tarpon on the same lure.”
Rose has given his angling records to the FIU group, and Rehage considers it a treasure trove.
“Science questions have been answered by those beads,” she said, not joking. “The beads are an amazing 20-year-record that we can relate to hydrology.”
Now if only the FIU group could find about 15-20 more citizen scientists like Rose and his crew and train them to scan for tagged fish.
“We’re putting all this work into conservation and management and they are the ones who are committed to the ecosystem,” Lee said. “This program gets them involved with that.”
For more information about FIU’s CAST program, visit cast.fiu.edu.