Monitoring North Florida’s Natural Resources

Researchers are strategically located in the Jacksonville area to study marine mammals, marine turtles and marine fisheries.

It is said that distance makes the heart grow fonder and familiarity breeds contempt. This may be true when speaking of love. For researchers, however, it could be said that distance leaves their hearts to wonder and familiarity promotes sound science. Florida is a large state with a variety of habitats that are home to an even greater diversity of animals. FWRI researchers are strategically stationed throughout the state at more than 20 locations close to the natural resources they study. In addition to being close to important research interests, FWRI researchers at field stations are often able to form mutually beneficial partnerships with other research and conservation organizations. One such location, Jacksonville, is home to researchers monitoring marine fisheries, marine mammals and marine turtles.

Marine Fisheries Research

 marine fisheries researchers
Marine fisheries researchers use a 70-foot net to sample small, juvenile fish as part
of routine estuary monitoring.

Because of its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean and three large river estuaries, Jacksonville is a perfect location from which to track marine fish species from birth to adulthood. Many of these fish begin their lives in estuaries and bays, where they grow and develop before moving offshore as adults. Since 2001, marine fisheries researchers in Jacksonville have been keeping an eye on juvenile fish populations in the St. Johns, Nassau and St. Marys River estuaries as part of a statewide monitoring program. Researchers also collect data from offshore surveys on reef fish. Researchers use these two sources of information to produce population estimates managers use to sustain fisheries with appropriate season lengths, bag limits and size limits.

Thanks to a partnership with Jacksonville University, researchers are located right on the bank of the St. Johns River and a short drive from the other two estuaries. In 2010, researchers moved into a joint-use Marine Science Research Institute on the university’s campus. They now work under the same roof as other research and conservation organizations, offering opportunities for collaboration.

Marine Mammal Research

 marine mammal researchers
Researchers look for endangered North Atlantic right whales during an aerial
survey off St. Augustine.

When asked about work, sometimes people say, “It’s been a zoo, lately.” For FWRI marine mammal researchers in Jacksonville, work is always a zoo because they’re based at the Jacksonville Zoo Field Lab. These researchers are responsible for rescue and recovery of marine mammals, especially the North Atlantic right whale and Florida manatee, which are both endangered.

Right whale researchers support NOAA Fisheries with monitoring and recovery of the right whale population, which is estimated to be at least 450 individuals. The coastal waters near Jacksonville are part of the only known right whale calving area, so researchers conduct aerial surveys to count mother-calf pairs to record new additions to the population. They also monitor population numbers by photographing and identifying individual right whales. In addition to monitoring, researchers help rescue entangled right whales and communicate whale locations through an early warning system to help prevent vessel-whale collisions.

Manatee researchers coordinate the northeast section of a statewide rescue and recovery network. They are responsible for rescuing injured and sick manatees and transporting them to partner rehabilitation facilities. Researchers also recover dead manatees and conduct necropsies (animal autopsies) to determine cause of death and identify threats to these animals. Manatee researchers in Jacksonville also conduct genetics studies and use photo-identification to monitor the manatee population in northeast Florida.

When marine mammal researchers are conducting field work, they rely on volunteers to assist with rescue and recovery operations. For instance, if a stranded manatee is reported while researchers are in the field, they know the zoo’s Marine Mammal Rescue Team and other volunteers will be ready to assist with the rescue.

Marine Turtle Research

 entangled marine turtle
Marine turtles researchers coordinate the Florida Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network to respond to strandings, which include entanglements such as this.

Marine turtle researchers are also based at the Jacksonville Zoo, as northeast Florida is an important location in the Florida Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network. The network is a statewide effort to document and investigate the causes of strandings – sea turtles that have washed ashore or are floating, dead or alive. All five sea turtle species found in the waters around Florida are either threatened or endangered. Identifying the threats to these species and figuring out how to lessen their effects are important steps in helping these populations recover. So when sea turtles are found stranded, researchers want to find out why.

The stranding and salvage network relies heavily on members of sea turtle conservation organizations. FWRI researchers encourage members to participate, train them and coordinate their responses to strandings. A number of these organizations in the Jacksonville area have partnered with FWRI. When a stranded sea turtle is reported to the FWC’s Wildlife Alert Hotline, an FWRI researcher at the closest network location quickly responds or coordinates a response by partners. When turtles are found dead, responders record details about the animal and location. Researchers may also conduct necropsies on recently deceased turtles to determine cause of death. Turtles found alive are rescued and transported to the closest permitted rehabilitation center.

FWRI’s presence in Jacksonville is a great example of maximizing the “two Ps” – proximity and partners. Being close to resources is often fundamental to researchers’ ability to study them, and forming key local partnerships further enhances their capacity to do so.

FWC Facts:
Atlantic stingrays can be found more than 200 miles up the St. Johns River and have been known to pup as far upstream as Lake Harney.

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