May 23, 2016|By Jack Payne

I learned a bit about science from some non-scientists recently. It happened over dinner at Robinson’s Seafood in Cedar Key, FL, with five local charter fishing guides. None had a Ph.D., but in between bites of grouper fingers and fried shrimp we swapped plenty of observation and inquiry.

This social outing and science klatch came together because of a $20,000 grant from The Conservation Fund to the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) to help us get started on a study of spotted seatrout in the Cedar Key area. Perhaps just as important, it also supported our desire to explore a new model for practicing science.

Part of the inspiration for my idea to launch the Nature Coast Biological Station (NCBS) last year was to bring science closer to the people it benefits. Arguably, everyone in Cedar Key benefits from anglers who flock to the coast to fish for spotted seatrout.

Payne TaggedTroutA tagged spotted seatrout ready to be released as part of our research study. Photo courtesy UF/IFAS.

Spotted seatrout accounts for about 10 percent of an estimated 25.7 million annual recreational fishing trips in Florida. Perhaps no one benefits as directly as folks like the people I shared dinner with—the guides people pay to take them where the fish are biting.

When UF/IFAS saw The Conservation Fund’s call for direct engagement, we realized there was an alignment of interests here. We could use grant funds to hire these five veteran skippers to take our graduate student researchers out to catch fish. We were injecting a few bucks directly into the local economy in the name of scientific inquiry.

From the skippers’ standpoint, the only difference between taking out researchers and anglers was that the researchers weren’t out to eat their catch. They just wanted to tag it.

Graduate students Holden Harris, Yasmin Quintana, and Grant Scholten from the UF/IFAS Fisheries and Aquatic Science program ultimately want to help the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) figure out how much of the spotted seatrout population is getting reeled in each year. It’s essential to quantify the catch as an element of an evidence-based management strategy to sustain the fishery.

Holden, Yasmin, and Grant caught scores of spotted seatrout and affixed yellow tags to fish of legal size that gave anglers a number to call in with the site and timing of their catch—and claim $100 for doing so. It makes fishermen into citizen scientists who harvest data for us.

Payne FishAndMeasurePicMembers of the Florida FWC Commission’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute and scientists from UF/IFAS fish for spotted seatrout as part of a research project supported by The Conservation Fund. Photo courtesy UF/IFAS.

Payne TaggingShotUF/IFAS researcher Grant Scholten tags a spotted seatrout on a cradle fishboard. Photo courtesy UF/IFAS.

Payne spotted seatrout tagsA closer inspection of the tags used. Photo courtesy Photo courtesy UF/IFAS.

The first scientific question was whether tagging itself had an impact. In other words, does the very act of tagging kill off the fish it’s trying to help? The graduate students actually held the newly tagged fish in FWC tanks for a couple of days to see how many succumbed to the trauma of tagging. Not many, it turned out. That’s good news. It means low impact on the fishery and high impact in producing good science.  

The tagging is going into a dual purpose second phase this spring. One purpose is to continue evaluating whether too many fish die from tagging in exchange for the data it provides. At the same time, the tagging also begins to seed the water with $100 incentives for citizen scientist anglers to cut off the tag and report their catch to The Conservation Fund-backed researchers, and will eventually help determine what percentage of the spotted seatrout population is taken by anglers.

The student researchers have benefited from the qualitative wisdom of the guides. Some of these men have spent decades on these waters. The partnership between the NCBS and the local fishing guides was so successful that NCBS has invested some of its own money in tagging to get a larger sample size to reinforce its results (and to take the guides out to Robinson’s as a thank-you gesture). So The Conservation Fund grant is truly acting as seed money.

Payne MarineResearch2FWC fisheries technician James Bainbridge, FWC biologist Johnny Polasik, and UF/IFAS biologist Justin Procopio on an FWC vessel off the coast of Cedar Key. Their work tagging spotted seatrout, supported by The Conservation Fund, could help guide FWC fishery management in an area where fishing is central to the local economy. Photo courtesy UF/IFAS.

Our graduate students are getting valuable training that will prepare them for careers in researching or managing Florida’s natural resources. Local guides are getting a bump in their income and the satisfaction of contributing service and experience to science. FWC can make better informed decisions to assure there will still be spotted seatrout around for future generations.

And gatherings like the one we held with local guides will help make science less elitist and invite the participation of folks without advanced degrees but with keen powers of observation.

Finally, The Conservation Fund makes a big impact with a modest investment. It’s been a key to jump-starting a project that can help develop the Big Bend area’s economy while protecting the natural resources on which that economy depends. 

Payne ncbs logo

The University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) established the Nature Coast Biological Station last year. Its mission is to conserve natural resources in the Big Bend area through collaborative research, enhanced public engagement, field-based courses, and hands-on training workshops.

The Conservation Fund grant is among the first research projects under the aegis of NCBS.

For more information on the Nature Coast Biological Station, contact director Mike Allen at or 352-273-3624.