FIM and Fish Bio Combined Project

  • A 9-meter seine being pulled by biologists at Robinson Preserve.

  • A FIM crew in Lake Worth restoration area pulling a 40-meter seine.

  • A FIM crew pulling a 70-meter seine in Lake Worth restoration area.

  • A juvenile tarpon caught at Coral Creek restoration site.

  • An image showing mangrove recruitment in an experimental pond at Coral Creek.

  • Biologists examining a water-level logger at Coral Creek restoration site.

  • Pond habitat at Robinson Preserve.

  • A snook captured from the Coral Creek restoration site.

  • A snook collected from the Lake Worth restoration area.

Coastal wetlands lie at a crossroads with urbanization and have been under threat from human development for centuries. Efforts are being made to protect and restore existing wetlands and to create new ones where possible (for example, from fallow fields adjacent to existing tributaries and coastal wetlands). Wetland restoration managers and engineers typically assume that if you build it, they will come. That is, if a degraded wetland is restored or a new wetland constructed, an increase in wildlife using that wetland should be expected. This concept, however, has rarely been truly tested. The FWRI Fisheries Independent Monitoring (FIM) and Fisheries Biology (FishBio) programs have been monitoring fish stocks (recruitment, abundance, age and growth, movement) throughout the state of Florida for decades. In the past few years, resource managers and engineers have taken an interest in working with biologists at FWRI to assess how restored and created wetlands function and to assist in developing habitat elements within wetland restoration and creation projects that are specifically designed for fish. Staff from the FIM and FishBio programs have ongoing wetland restoration studies on both coasts of Florida – within Lake Worth on the East coast and Robinson Preserve and Coral Creek within Tampa Bay and Charlotte Harbor, respectively, on the west coast 

Several years ago, fishery researchers from the FIM and FishBio programs at FWRI initiated a dialog with staff from FWC’s Habitat and Species Conservation group, wetland engineers at the Southwest Florida Water Management District, land managers from Charlotte and Manatee Counties, and resource managers at NOAA/NMFS about including nursery habitat design elements into wetland restoration and creation projects. The managers, fishery researchers, and engineers were particularly interested in restoring and creating nursery habitats for common snook and tarpon. Common snook and tarpon are two highly targeted sport fish that use coastal wetlands as their nursery habitat and there is much to gain by restoring and creating more of this habitat used by these species because so much coastal wetland habitat has been lost. This team of biologists, managers, and engineers also factored into the discussions the impacts that sea-level rise would have upon these habitats, realizing that they needed to include elements in the designs (e.g. coastal ponds) that would become nursery habitats in the future 

Two restoration and habitat creation projects were targeted for these habitat elements, one in Tampa Bay (Robinson Preserve) and one in Charlotte Harbor (Coral Creek). Fishery sampling by the FIM and FishBio programs was conducted prior to full wetland restoration to determine how the habitats were being used. Fishery sampling is now being completed to assess the benefits of the different habitat elements that were designed into each of these study areas. As of yet, unfunded expansions of fishery sampling to include adult size animals and additional studies that focus on tag/recapture as proposed by additional partners (Bonefish and Tarpon Trust, and MOTE Marine Laboratory) would assess the contribution of these nursery habitats to adult reproductive populations. Cumulatively, these findings will inform future wetland designs on appropriate elevations for different habitat elements and connection types, depths, and inundation frequencies with the goal of creating habitats that optimize survival and growth rates for juvenile common snook and tarpon but that also allow them to emigrate to the larger estuary and contribute to the adult populations 

The FWC Habitat and Species Conservation, Palm Beach County, and Florida Atlantic University are key partners with the FIM program in a seagrass and shoreline restoration project in the Lake Worth area of the Indian River Lagoon. Portions of the Southeast Florida reef tract are located just offshore of the restored habitats in Lake Worth, so providing habitat for juvenile reef fish species was a major goal. Some of the species that were expected to benefit from the restoration include; spotted seatrout, common snook, sheepshead, gray snapper, and mutton snapper. Since completion of the project, fishery sampling has been conducted by the FIM program to determine the species using these newly restored areas.  

Biologists from the FIM and FishBio programs are funded to continue research on these projects through at least 2021. Research methods for gathering fishery samples include several seine types (9.1-meter, 21.3-meter, 40-meter) designed to collect different ages and sizes of fish. Sampling is being conducted at randomly selected sites throughout the entire restored area to assess changes in fish populations. In some of the study sites, a small proportion of the common snook and tarpon collected are being fitted with tags to track their movement, survival, and growth. A restored wetland, however, takes over a decade to reach habitat maturity. Time, patience and continued funding are necessary to fully assess the functioning of these habitat elements 

The researchers from FWRI involved with this project are Dave Blewett, Phil Stevens, Courtney Saari, Tim MacDonald, Richard Paperno, James Whittington, and Ryan Moyer.  

These projects are already informing wetland restoration managers and engineers on how different habitat design elements are functioning. Further findings will only improve future restorations at these vital crossroads between coastal habitats and urbanization