Two Florida graduate students are part of a Forage Fish Research Program. They are looking at how altering water flows in coastal estuaries affect fish, and learning the best ways to manage popular recreational fish.
Dakota Lewis, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Florida, is assessing how increasing or decreasing freshwater discharge can disrupt critical links between predator fish and their prey, like menhaden and pinfish.
Lewis has tracked impacts in the Indian River Lagoon and St. Lucie Estuary. She said she is now focused on Florida Bay and the Everglades restoration efforts, using machine learning techniques to analyze data.
“Seeing if those two systems that are pretty close in space,” Lewis explained. “When you think of St. Lucie and the Florida Bay, if some of the same patterns and trends of the fish will look the same down south, and kind of using some new techniques that allow for more variability in the system.”
Lewis is still in the early stages of the Florida Bay project, but her just-published research in the journal Ecological Indicators showed for the St. Lucie project, restoring lower natural water flow stabilized the relationship between both forage fish and sport fish communities and their environment.
Barry Walton, a Ph.D. student at Florida State University, is examining biomarkers to study how two popular sport fish species — red drum or redfish and spotted seatrout — use their habitat and food resources. Walton said he is learning more about their shared resources and diets, including forage fish.
“Better understanding their diets and how they’re feeding will help with their management,” Walton pointed out. “The better that we manage these important sport fish, the better off we will be able to protect them for the long term.”
Walton noted so far, he’s learning both species are using different food sources, to a small degree, and he is working to get the research published in a peer-reviewed journal.
Since 2016, the Forage Fish Research program, a public-private partnership between the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, leading academics, and Florida Forage Fish Coalition, has provided these fellowships to grad students at Florida universities.