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Research and Monitoring Program

Recreational and commercial fisheries along Florida’s Gulf coast extensively target reef fishes, such as snappers and groupers. Recent stock assessments have repeatedly identified the need for information about their abundance, biology and ecology, which will greatly improve the assessment and management of these economically important populations.

Since 2008, biologists from FWRI’s Fisheries-Independent Monitoring group have worked to develop and implement a research and monitoring program to provide timely fisheries-independent data – representative for the population as a whole and not just the segment targeted by the fishery – for a variety of state- and federally-managed reef fishes, including gag, red grouper, red snapper and others. Studies provide additional data for non-managed fishes to support ecosystem-based assessment and management.

Researchers use different types of sampling gear to target fish in multiple stages of life at different sites from the Panhandle to the Dry Tortugas. Using 183-meter haul seines and 6.1-meter otter trawls, biologists collect juvenile reef fishes from high-salinity, estuarine seagrass habitat at five locations along the west and northwest Florida coast (Figure 1). This research is important because fish at this stage of development are underrepresented in historical monitoring efforts. Researchers collect approximately 120 haul-seine samples and 375 otter-trawl samples each year by conducting monthly surveys from June through November.

In eastern Gulf of Mexico shelf waters of 10-110 meters, biologists use large, 42-foot trawls to monitor fish over low-relief, soft-sediment habitats (Figure 2). They conduct large trawl surveys during June and July, collecting approximately 100 trawl samples annually. In some years, researchers also perform limited sampling in October and November as funding permits. Researchers use chevron traps, stationary underwater video cameras and vertical hooked gears to monitor sub-adult and adult individuals in reef environments from the Panhandle to the Dry Tortugas (Figure 3). They conduct these surveys May through October, sampling approximately 1200 stations annually.

FWRI conducts much of this research in cooperation with federal and academic partners. Federal partners include: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, United States Geological Survey, U.S National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission and Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. Academic partners include: University of South Florida, University of West Florida, University of Florida, NOVA Southeastern University, University of North Carolina and Dauphin Island (Ala.) Sea Lab.

Reef fish research efforts generate data that include size distribution, population abundance, age and growth, diet, reproductive biology, mercury, movement patterns and habitat associations. Researchers use this information to determine how the natural reef fish populations are doing. Scientists can then apply the information directly in future stock assessments and provide an improved picture of the current and future status of managed stocks.