Grad student creates science team to examine Everglades restoration efforts

Jessica Lee is examining the impacts of ongoing water restoration efforts in the Everglades. A graduate student in the Department of Earth and Environment, she has created the Coastal Angler Science Team (CAST), which combines tag and release methods as well as help from local citizens to evaluate the habitat of largemouth bass and snook in the Shark River Estuary.

Environmental studies graduate student Jessica Lee poses with a fish in the Everglades.

Environmental studies graduate student Jessica Lee tags and releases a largemouth bass in the Everglades.

“Fish are intimately linked with water. Hydrological conditions affect fish populations in every aspect, including distribution and movement,” Lee said. “We’re looking at these fish, specifically the largemouth bass, because it is an important predator in the Coastal Everglades and they are economically important to South Florida’s fishing industry. This research will analyze the impacts of restoration efforts by looking at their abundance and ability to survive abiotic and biotic stressors.”

To mark the fish, passive integrated transponder (PIT) tags, or microchips with a unique code, are inserted in the belly of a fish. Lee and her thesis advisor, Jennifer Schopf Rehage, inject the tag through a shallow injection made by a syringe. The minimally invasive procedure lasts no more than 60 seconds on each fish. After the fish are tagged, weighed and measured, they are released back in to their natural habitat.

Each PIT tag, measuring 32 mm, remains dormant until the fish are recaptured and it is activated by an electronic reader that is passed over it. This reader activates the tag and reads the unique identification number assigned to it. The FIU researchers are working alongside local anglers, recreational fisherman and fishing guides to collect the recapture data. The recapture of marked fish provides data on growth rates, movement patterns, survival and population dynamics.

“Anglers are important stakeholders in Everglades restoration and I wanted to better incorporate them into ongoing conservation efforts by creating CAST,” Lee said. “These local fisherman are trained on how to collect recapture information and are equipped with the readers and needed tools to collect the data.”

So far, Lee and Rehage have tagged more than 2,500 fish, including some from a pilot project from 2011. Their goal is to tag an additional 2,000 fish by the end of the year. Lee’s research project, funded by the Everglades Foundation, is set to run until 2014.

“We hope CAST will become a long-term initiative where we can continue to work with the community in finding answers to make better management and conservation decisions and preserving fishing quality,” Lee said.