Underwater photographers go to great lengths to study and document the deep. Luck, lighting, and water clarity all factor in, but without a good eye and lens you’ll likely miss important details. The same goes for scientists, who also must follow a rigorous set of guidelines as they explore the secret lives of fish.

Forget the GoPro, though. Marine scientists behind a new study at the University of South Florida are interested in actual fish eye lenses. That’s because, similar to the rings on a tree stump, fish eyes are layered with information in the form of carbon and nitrogen isotopes. Through close examination of these chemical tracers, scientists hope to discover where pinfish (Lagodon rhomboides) spawn and spend their lives along Florida’s Gulf Coast.

Story by Nicole Heath, Force-E Scuba Centers

Pinfish, named for their needle-like spines, are small and unremarkable in stature. But, they and other forage fish are critical to maintaining healthy marine ecosystems. Together, these species fuel grouper, dolphins, seabirds, and a host of other popular marine predators. Without healthy populations of prey, Florida’s world class diving, fishing, birdwatching, and thriving seafood industry could take a hit.

Some forage fish have useful hobbies as well. In the case of pinfish, it’s gardening. Like many Floridians, pinfish grow obsessed with lawn care later in life. It’s a healthy obsession, though, as pinfish clean and prune seagrass blades, encouraging more resilient meadows which produce oxygen, promote water quality, and provide important fish habitat.

pinfish

What pinfish lack in size, they make up for in number, and spines. Maxing out at less than a pound, predators depend on large schools of pinfish and other forage species to fuel their growth. Photo credit: NOAA

USF’s pinfish study is therefore of great value to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), which is tasked with safeguarding Florida’s marine life. The FWC has long been a leader in forage fish management and in June 2015 adopted a resolution focused on keeping forage fish and their predators well-fed. The agency knows that honoring this promise requires the scientific community learn more about these often overlooked and underappreciated species.

Enter the Florida Forage Fish Research Program (FFFRP). This public-private partnership among the FWC’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (FWRI), academic institutions, and the Florida Forage Fish Coalition (FFFC) will fund important research based on data collected by FWC. The pinfish project is one of two program fellowships to receive funding this year. Another fellowship at the University of Florida will study the forage fish needs of red drum and gag grouper by carefully examining gut samples collected by the agency. The results of these exciting projects will be available in 2018, so stay tuned!

Whether you are a scuba diver, aspiring underwater photographer, coastal birder, or fisherman, I hope you will join me in supporting this important work. For updates on the research program and other forage fish news, visit www.floridaforagefish.org and take the Florida Forage Fish Pledge.

GoliathGrouper

A goliath grouper off South Florida bathes in a school of forage fish offshore. Grouper, snapper, and other reef fish spend the early part of life in coastal estuaries, where they intermingle with and feed on pinfish, anchovies, mullet, and other forage species. These calorie-packed meals help predators grow big enough to survive more competitive habitats offshore. Photo: Richard Eaker

Story by Nicole Heath, Force-E Scuba Centers