Gulf Fishery Independent Survey of Habitat and Ecosystem Resources (G-FISHER) Project

  • FWRI’s new 360 degree spherical camera (or spherecam) on the deck of a sampling vessel. The spherecam has 5 cameras orthogonal to each other for a complete concentric view with one of the lenses paired with a satellite "stereo" lens.

  • FWRI’s historical stereo camera used over the past 5+ years to record imagery of fish and habitats.  The two lenses record time-synched videos which can be paired in stereovision to measure fish.
  • Standard stereo camera system being deployed from an FWRI vessel in nearshore waters.
  • Multiple spherecams set to be deployed while offshore transiting between sites.
  • Spherecam set to deploy from vessel.

    FWRI’s side scan sonar on the deck of a vessel prior to deployment.  Side scan sonar is used to map the bottom and provide imagery of habitats.
  • Map of annual (2021) selected sites for SBRUV deployment throughout the Gulf of Mexico.
  • Side scan imagery of a ledge. Image produced from echo from the bottom where dark areas indicate an acoustic “shadow.”
  • Underwater snapshot of typical fragmented natural hard bottom in the Gulf.
  • Underwater snapshot of natural hard bottom habitat with a tiger shark swimming by.
  • Underwater snapshot of artificial reef habitat; a poultry transport cage.
  • Underwater snapshot of artificial reef habitat; a poultry transport cage with many lionfish surrounding.
  • A stitched image view from the 5 cameras on the new spherecam system showing a school of greater amberjack.
  • A stitched image view from the 5 cameras on the new spherecam showing a group of reef balls.
  • A stitched image view from the 5 cameras on the new spherecam showing natural hard bottom habitat.
  • Use of SeaGIS software to measure fish in situ using stereo-video technology (fish being measured is a gray triggerfish).

Red snapper, greater amberjack and gray triggerfish are all reef-associated fishes, and they are also oblivious to state boundaries. The mismatch between management boundaries and species distribution has long been a particular challenge when trying to gain a holistic picture of a particular species’ life history and ecology. The long-term G-FISHER project is designed to address this challenge by providing improved fishery-independent monitoring data on the relative abundance, size composition, habitat use and assemblage structure of reef fishes (gray triggerfish, red grouper, hogfish, mutton snapper, red snapper, gray snapper, lane snapper, gag, scamp, greater amberjack and many others) on natural and artificial reef habitats throughout the U.S. Gulf of Mexico. By doing so, the project will provide a more accurate characterization of overall trends through space and time. Once more comprehensive data become available, FWRI biologists and their colleagues can begin to explore how various natural and anthropogenic processes drive population and community structure for economically and ecologically important reef fishes.

The status of managed fish stocks has long been determined through single-species stock assessments relying heavily on data collected from the fishery (fishery-dependent data). However, increasingly complex and restrictive management measures have altered fishing behavior and reduced the utility of fishery-dependent data for assessing population trends through time. In many cases, this has resulted in increased uncertainty in the estimation of key population parameters as well as the determination of stock status. In other cases, long-term stock status and trends are unknown due to a lack of statistically robust data. Because of these issues, there is a growing need for better fishery-independent data sources. Throughout the Gulf, there are several fishery-independent surveys capable of providing data for managed reef fishes; however, an ongoing collaborative set of surveys conducted by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) - Mississippi Laboratories, NMFS - Panama City, and FWRI provides the most comprehensive, multispecies characterization of abundance and size composition of reef-associated fishes in the Gulf. Nevertheless, there are several improvements that could be made to these historical surveys. First, they are limited in their spatial coverage, and for some taxa these surveys cover a small proportion of the range of the population. Second, sampling intensity is often insufficient to detect changes through time. And third, these surveys historically have excluded artificial reef habitats. To address these and other issues, the G-FISHER project is designed to unify all three historical surveys under a novel, Gulf-wide survey design that, combined with a dramatic increase in annual sampling effort, should improve the ability of this survey to characterize reef fish populations and reef-associated assemblages. Ultimately, these survey improvements should result in improved data for use in stock assessments to determine the status of managed reef fishes, while also providing robust data to assess how these populations are being impacted by various natural and anthropogenic stressors such as habitat, red tide, invasive species and climate change among others.

Overall project efforts involve extensive field-based monitoring surveys of reef fish and their associated habitats. There is also a significant analytical component to this project focused on the development of novel statistical approaches for generating appropriate time series of abundance, size composition, and assemblage structure that bridge historical and new data collection methods. Resultant data will then be analyzed to test a variety of critical ecological and management-related hypotheses.

Field-based activities associated with this project involve three key components: habitat mapping surveys, underwater camera surveys and collection of coincident environmental DNA (eDNA) samples at a subset of sites sampled with cameras. Habitat mapping efforts will primarily be conducted using side scan sonar, although some multibeam sonar surveys will be conducted. These surveys will be conducted at randomly selected locations; many locations will be new areas where prior mapping data are unavailable, but some mapping of previously mapped areas will be conducted to explore how habitats change through time. Reef fish surveys will be conducted using stereo-baited remote underwater video (S-BRUV) camera systems. Most sampling effort will utilize full spherical S-BRUV systems that provide a full 360-degree horizontal view of fish and associated habitats around the camera pod. Video is viewed to determine abundance of all species observed as MaxN, or the maximum number of individuals per species observed on a single image. Observed fishes will also be measured using stereo-video technology. Finally, habitats observed on video are classified to ground-truth habitat mapping data. At a subset of sites, water samples will also be collected and preserved for later analysis of eDNA which will provide some insight into system-wide biological diversity as well as which taxa may be systematically underrepresented in video surveys.

This project will provide significant benefits to researchers, biologists, resource managers and other end users throughout the Gulf. First, the G-FISHER project will provide an improved understanding of hard-bottom habitat dynamics throughout the Gulf of Mexico and how reef fish abundance, size composition and assemblage structure vary among habitats. The project will also yield an improved understanding of the status of multiple managed reef fishes, and it will improve our understanding of the biology and ecology of reef fishes by providing robust data necessary to link biological processes to key environmental drivers throughout the Gulf continental shelf. Combined, this should result in an improved ability to effectively assess and manage reef fish populations throughout the Gulf.

FWRI biologists and their colleagues have several more years of field sampling and data processing to conduct, along with most planned statistical analyses, before this long-term project is complete. As this project progresses, analytical products will be developed for several single-species stock assessments and interim analyses annually to provide management advice. Although only three years remain on the current project, there is a strong likelihood that G-FISHER will be renewed for an additional 5 years. So, there is still a lot of work to be done.

Direct research efforts associated with the project primarily involve staff from Marine Fisheries Research and the Center for Biostatistics and Modeling. Nevertheless, these researchers are working closely with other groups for which project results will be useful, including Stock Assessment, Habitat and Species Conservation and the Artificial Reef Program within the Division of Marine Fisheries Management. This project will provide a variety of analytical products that are essential for assessment and management purposes; therefore, results will be useful for a variety of end users, including the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, stock assessment scientists at FWRI and NOAA, and various other resource managers and academic researchers.

The primary source of funding for G-FISHER is the NOAA RESTORE Science Program, although this project is also supported by funding from NOAA/NMFS through the Gulf SouthEast Monitoring and Assessment Program (SEAMAP), the Department of Interior through the Sportfish Restoration Program and from funding by the state of Florida. Key partners for survey-related activities include NMFS - Mississippi and NMFS - Panama City Laboratories. FWRI biologists are also partnering with the University of West Florida for the environmental DNA studies.