Guy Harvey T-shirt clad researchers descend on St. Pete Beach

09/14/12 Janelle Irwin
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It’s been more than two years since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but environmentalists are still working hard to ensure fisheries in the sensitive ecosystem are healthy. Scientists at a symposium at the Tradewinds Resort on St. Pete Beach are mulling over ways to manage both shortages and abundances of sea life.

One of the sponsors is famed t-shirt artist and environmentalist Guy Harvey. He runs a foundation that focuses on improving the overall health of oceans. One of the group’s concerns, he said, is the dwindling worldwide shark population.

“To feed the Asian demand for shark fin soup many species of sharks have been severely over fished with some shark populations reduced to less than ten percent.”

But a fisherman at the event said he’s seen an influx in sharks over the past several years. Bob Hueter is associate vice president at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota. He said there are some species whose populations are on the rise, but that doesn’t mean sharks are in the clear.

“The Black Tip Shark is a relatively fast growing shark. Instead of taking 15 or 20 years to mature, they only mature at about 6 or 7 years and we did a stock assessment of the Black Tip a few months ago and the stock is in good shape. It’s not over fished and it doesn’t look like over fishing is occurring.”

But that’s something Hueter says could be used to help other species.

“So, I’ve actually been a proponent of trying to redirect our shark fisheries to a species like the black tip and away from some of the species that are in trouble like the Sandbar and try to get the market to adjust to that as well.”

When people talk about restoring fisheries, they tend to assume it’s all about saving endangered populations. That’s true, but it’s not the whole story. According to Chuck Wilson, chief scientific officer for the Gulf of Mexico Research Institute, some species like red fish are actually in abundance. But there’s a catch. Most of the species are in their teens even though they can live to be 50 or 60-years old. Wilson compared the problem to what would happen in the human population.

“You could see the imbalance you’d have both in the workforce – kind of a good example – imbalance in the workforce, imbalance in experience. In the fish population, that’s reproductive capacity because the bigger you are, the older you are, the more eggs you put out in your lifetime.”

That means even though there’s an abundance of red fish now, it might not stay that way.

“So, we’re missing that money in the bank so to speak – that insurance policy that assures that population will continue when you have highly questionable, highly variable recruitment of their young. And so the ones that are of concern to me are the ones that are long lived and that longevity is gone in the population.”

Part of the goal of researchers at symposiums like this one is to find ways to collaborate different management strategies. Wilson said because there’s an abundance of young red fish but a shortage of mature ones, regulations get a little tricky. Most size regulations say a fish must be a certain size to keep. But in this case the management strategy would be the other way around.

“If a fish makes it to this size you let it live on. If you catch it you gotta let it go or you don’t fish areas where they’re caught. Kind of goes against the bounty idea of the biggest fish wins in a tournament and you can have allowances for that but that’s one of the strategies. The other one is you just manage bag limits and seasons so you know that some of those fish are going to get into that old age distribution.”

In broader terms, the entire Gulf of Mexico could be in trouble.

“Well we’re facing many challenges coming up in the Gulf of Mexico. We have more people wanting to use resources, there’s been oil spills, there’s lots of issues, more and more people using habitat. The concern is, we have to manage this to ensure the well being of future generations.”

That was Jim Bohnsack. He’s a research fishery scientist with the National Marine Fishery Service in Miami.

“As scientists, we want to make sure the best data get used in the management process. Our role is to develop the understanding, the science that allows us to have the resource restored and be healthy and management takes that information to make those decisions to allow the restoration and the well being of the resource so we can have jobs, employment and recreation for future generations.”

Bohnsack said part of that protection includes more than just studying sea life. As he put it, you can take the fish out of its habitat, but you can’t take the habitat out of its fish.

“So if all the sea grass died just replanting it’s not going to solve the problem. Why did it die? In some cases we have to do a better job with our water quality, our run off, our sewage treatment. These things are activities going on. Some of them are expensive but again, the cost is there won’t be any resource in the future so better pay a little bit now and make sure it’s restored and healthy than not.”

Seagrass functions as a nursery for many of the species living in the Gulf. Run a net through it and you’re likely to find any number of egg sacks and infant sea life. And Bohnsack said people don’t have to be scientists to help keep habitats healthy.

“Not throwing their trash overboard, cleaning up, you know simple things. They should decide the resources. Invest in organizations that help protect even if they can’t do it – political organizations, environmental organizations and also be aware when they vote – people that are going to take care of the resource.”

Steven Murawski, a professor at USF’s College of Marine Science, said combining management strategies, enforcement of regulations and public knowledge are integral parts of protecting the Gulf – and that’s important.

“This is the epicenter of recreational fishing in the country so there’s a huge economic dependence on fisheries.”

The symposium will continue tomorrow with. It will wind up with a Guy Harvey Film Festival featuring two of his documentaries and trailers for upcoming films starting at 7 in the evening.

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