PBS Changing Seas: Fishing the Flats for Science

To get an inside look, Emmy winning show, Changing Seas, joins us and Bonefish and Tarpon Trust from Florida to the Bahamas. Click here to watch!

"Flats fishing is popular with recreational anglers in the Caribbean and the Florida Keys. But until recently, little was known about tarpon, bonefish and permit – the species most coveted by sports fishermen. Now scientists are studying the fish to better understand their movements, habitat, and spawning behaviors."


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Tracking the lost years - where do baby sea turtles grow?

My new piece published by That's Life Science - uncovering the mystery of the "lost years". Discussing Katherine Mansfield’s 2014 paper: Mansfield KL, Wyneken J, Porter WP, Luo J. 2014 “First satellite tracks of neonate sea turtles redefine the ‘lost years’ oceanic niche.” Proc. R. Soc. B 281: 20133039. 


Fishing Towards Conservation


Anglers are vital advocates for their beloved waters; some decide to leave fish in the rivers and off the dinner table.

Two days of flights and overland travel and we find ourselves peering into the murky Rio Juramento accompanied by a handful of local catch and release (C&R) anglers. The town of El Tunal is a miniscule blip on the map in the region of Salta Argentina, but remains a prized destination for anglers seeking the allure of the golden dorado. Given increasing regional development and heightened demand for the species, the dorado and the regional river system are facing a number of impending threats – dams, hydropower, intensive agriculture, and nutrient runoff to name a few. The fish find themselves in this fight accompanied by emerging conservation anglers, avid C&R practitioners banning together to protect regional fish species and river systems.

There are diverse reasons to practice C&R; it is either implemented in compliance with harvest regulations or practiced voluntarily by anglers, motivated by their personal conservation ethics. Examining the latter, we often find regional C&R angler groups engaging in stewardship activities and advocating for the increased management efforts of a specific fishery. Anglers’ shared interest to protect local fisheries against external environmental threats often creates a unified conservation force. These localized conservation initiatives may be small in scale, but their stability, communication, and concern for the resources’ future can often bridge otherwise inaccessible gaps across stakeholder groups, scientists, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and management agencies.

Fig. 1 A golden dorado to be released after inserting a radio transmitter for tracking. Photo by Kim Ovitz

The golden dorado (Salminus brasiliensis) case study in the Province of Salta, Argentina demonstrates angler stewardship and collaboration between conservation groups. This C&R dorado fishery has gained substantial attention and momentum within domestic and international angler communities. This aggressive species is highly sought-after by anglers because of its remote location, explosive strikes, fighting stamina, and aerial acrobatics. While dorado have been historically harvested throughout Argentina, the adoption of C&R practices have increased in recent decades. This change in angler motivation has created a growing advocacy for dorado and watershed conservation.

River habitat destruction, the largest environmental threat to Salta’s rivers, has potentially devastating effects on healthy dorado populations. Many Argentinian rivers have been altered for hydroelectric power, irrigation, and agriculture. Additionally, they face threats from pollution and mining operations. Harvest, in the form of poaching and by-catch, also severely affects the health of the fishery.

In 2015, Salta’s regional C&R anglers addressed these threats to the fishery and local watersheds by organizing a coalition comprised of regional stakeholders and international anglers. This coalition included: anglers, non governmental agencies, guide outfitters, fisheries researchers, government officials, and fly fishing tackle companies (Patagonia, Temple Fork Outfitters Fly Rods, Rio Products, and Costa). The goal of the coalition was to promote dorado and watershed conservation by determining best-handling practices and promoting tourism for the fishery.

Fig. 2 Fly fishing on El Rio Juramento. Photo by Kim Ovitz

In kind, support from regional angler groups and outfitters facilitated much of the field research, including lodging, rafts, sample collection, and local ecological knowledge. Collaboration between anglers and the Ministry of the Environment has resulted in future plans for permanent conservation officers on Salta’s main river, El Rio Juramento. These officers will work with anglers to enforce strict anti-poaching laws and license regulations. Social media, driven by prestigious international anglers and fly-fishing companies, continues to generate advocacy for dorado conservation. Together, international anglers and fly fishing companies’ provided a platform for crowd-source funding to support dorado research.

Fig. 3 Fishing with local guide Leonel Rojas

The positive effects from these collective efforts are leading to expanded dorado conservation throughout South America. Securing further political support is critical to addressing increasing habitat and watershed degradation, specifically in relation to increasing hydroelectric generation, agriculture, and mining initiatives. It’s important for C&R anglers to cross socio-economic boundaries and unify with indigenous stakeholder groups that have an equal, if not greater, claim to these resources at hand. To achieve conservation success, the coalition will need to address both of these concerns.

Within the dorado fishery, the recreational C&R anglers are some of the most effective actors for ensuring conservation and effective management. These regional C&R anglers of the Salta Province are familiar with logistical and governmental resources; they are vocal and active in their communities, and engaged in ecological research. This angler knowledge and stewardship coupled with persisting social media campaigns serve to promote dorado and watershed conservation in Argentina. The coalition’s achievements and momentum should serve as a promising example to other fisheries with concerned C&R anglers.

Fig. 4 Tyler Gagne and Kim Ovitz cutting their way through to the stream

This post was written for That's Life [Science], a blog formed by UMass Graduate Students. Check out this piece and other great pieces via the link!

Why We Should Care about Sea Turtes: When A Sea Turtle Balanced Earth

What about sea turtles instills a power of captivation over so many people -- to the point even, that conservationists would sacrifice their life to save them? Why should we be alarmed that this ancient species is disappearing from the globe? 

Nestling into my airplane seat I considered whether I was more excited to attend my first conference or to escape the daunting New England winter. Motive aside, I prepared for the departure to New Orleans. Poster tube in hand, I filtered through the airport aisles and made my way to the taxi stand. I was attending the 34th International Sea Turtle Symposium to present my data on green sea turtle tracking and to connect with other sea turtle researchers. Away from the conference headquarters, I realized my skill for locating other turtle enthusiasts amongst the crowded city streets. My exploration transformed into a ‘Where’s Waldo?’ challenge, but instead of red & white caps, I combed the crowd for sea turtle printed T-shirts, flip-flops and the dead-give-away sea turtle tattoo. To my surprise, the majority of attendees weren’t actually biologists, they were sea turtle conservators who had dedicated their lives to late night beach patrols. In fact, the conference acknowledged and celebrated the life of 26-year-old sea turtle conservationist, Jairo Mora Sandoval, who was murdered months earlier after confronting sea turtle poachers on a beach in Costa Rica.

So what about sea turtles instills this power of captivation over so many people – to the point even, that conservationists like Mora, would sacrifice his life to save them? Why should we be alarmed that this ancient species is disappearing from the globe?

The ocean saw its first “sea turtle” well over 100 million years ago, an incredibly long time, considering dinosaurs became extinct 65 million years ago and our hominid relatives took their first bipedal steps only 4 million years ago. Ancient mythology and folklore have respected sea turtles for their peaceful demeanors, weathered skin, and odyssey-like voyages. The Iroquois continue to celebrate the sea turtle’s role in the creation of earth: after Ata-en-sic, the Sky Woman, fell from the clouds into the sea below, the animals that lived above in the great cloud sea feared her demise. They decided only oeh-da (earth) could hold the Sky Woman but earth was too heavy and continued sinking into the sea. Hah-nu-nah, the turtle, with his large shell volunteered to support earth for the Sky Woman. Now, when the earth-bearing turtle moves, the sea becomes choppy and the earth trembles. In ancient Hinduism exists a similar tale: four elephants stand on top of a great turtle shell to support earth. Originating from oral tradition, cultures around the world revere sea turtles and consider them symbolic.

Those fortunate enough to witness a several hundred pound sea turtle lay her eggs experience the same visceral response – a feeling of awe in response to the turtles intense migration over hundreds to thousands of miles, returning to the same beach she was hatched at 25 to 50 years prior. Using the earth’s magnetic field, a sea turtle is able to navigate through the vast ocean with astonishing precision. She lays and buries dozens of eggs within a small chamber beneath the sand. In the following decades, only a handful of her offspring are expected to survive and return to the same coastline to carry-on this ancient ritual. The life of a sea turtle is a life of journeys.


 Fig.1 Our family’s first turtle sighting in South Africa, 1997. My sister alongside a nesting leatherback sea turtle.

Fig.1 Our family’s first turtle sighting in South Africa, 1997. My sister alongside a nesting leatherback sea turtle.

Seven species of sea turtles exist around the world and nearly all are categorized as threatened or endangered. This classification signifies that if no action is taken to conserve sea turtles, the potential is high for them to become extinct.

For example, green sea turtle populations in the Caribbean have declined by over 90% since Columbus’ arrival in 1492. On board Columbus’ 2nd voyage in 1494, Andres Bernaldez noted the impressive sea turtle densities they encountered off what is now known as Southeastern Cuba [1]:

But in those twenty leagues, they saw very many more, for the sea was thick with them, and they were of the very largest, so numerous that it seemed that the ships would run aground on them and were as if bathing in them.

Sea turtle populations were heavily decimated by the 1800s when turtles and their eggs became heavily targeted as food to support large slave populations. Today, it is not possible to witness even a fraction of the sea turtle densities like Andres did in 1494. Current day sea turtle populations face numerous threats including over-harvest, habitat degradation, high rates of tourism, pollution, climate change, and increased rates of disease. There is however, optimistic news. While sea turtle population numbers are still declining in the greater Pacific, recent evidence shows population numbers are remaining stable or even increasing in some key rookeries in the Atlantic Ocean, a phenomenon credited to the aggressive conservation efforts initiated by grassroots movements, NPOs, NGOs, government action, and researchers alike.

Today, conservation practices include outreach and education, community-based management (regulating or banning commercial harvests of turtles and eggs), turtle excluder devices in fishing nets, beach-nesting sanctuaries, and marine protected areas that encompass important sea turtle habitat.


 Fig. 2 A green sea turtle, and remora in tow, searching for suitable seagrass to feed on.

Fig. 2 A green sea turtle, and remora in tow, searching for suitable seagrass to feed on.

The sea turtles mystique will not be the only entity lost upon their extinction. Sea turtles are important agents within a healthy ecosystem and each species fills a different ecological role. Habitats that are essential for marine life like sea grass beds and coral reefs are maintained by sea turtles through their eating habits. The enormity of a sea turtle extinction would be felt through countless ecosystems.

Leaving this first conference, my appreciation for sea turtles was solidified after recognizing their role as indicators and ambassadors to overall marine environmental health. I wonder when western society lost its reverence and appreciation for wildlife’s intrinsic value. As the extinction of species rapidly increases, cultures are forgotten, ecosystems are weakened, and wildlife’s intrinsic value is degraded. Our present actions are key for sea turtle preservation against a number of anthropogenic threats including climate change, over-consumption, and habitat degradation to name a few.

This post was written for That's Life [Science], a blog formed by UMass Graduate Students. Check out this piece and other great pieces via the link


[1] Jackson, J. B. C. 1997. Reefs since columbus. Coral Reefs 16 : 23-23.

Striped Bass on a NJ Barrier Island

Our small group of 12 comprised of students and professors from UMASS and Monmouth University was invited to join the Berkeley Striper Club for a day of surfcasting for striped bass at Island Beach State Park in New Jersey. We were all impressed by the vast ecological knowledge of the anglers and with their commitment to striped bass conservation. In hopes to determine best catch-and-release handling practices, we with the aid of the anglers took non-lethal blood samples and performed behavior assessments on caught fish. It was a chilly but beautiful November day to spend on this picturesque barrier island with its sprawling grass covered dunes.


Project Permit

The Bonefish & Tarpon Trust’s “Project Permit” is the first extensive overview of Permit spatial ecology. Habitat connectivity must be considered to ensure effective management plans at the correct geographic scale. I spent a week in the lower Florida Keys working with fellow colleagues, Jake Brownscombe from Carleton University and Aaron Adams from BTT, and alongside local fishing guides in hopes to capture Permit. Once Permit have acoustic transmitters surgically implanted, 60 receivers will detect the locations of these fish. Unfortunately, conditions weren’t perfect for us to hook into any; the difficult fishing is telling why little information has been collected on these elusive fish.  Visit Bonefish & Tarpon Trust’s site to read more about Permit research. 

Culebra Conch

Queen conch (Lobatus gigas), a valuable fishery, have suffered region-wide stock depletion and are now considered a species of concern throughout South Florida, The Caribbean, and South America. While numerous factors may be at play in the depletion of conch stocks, over harvest has been recognized to have a significant role. Over the last two years on Culebra, PR, our UMASS team has noticed a multitude of harvesters wading the flats and edges of mangroves collecting piles of conch atop kayaks. Although at a distance, we are often unable to gauge if the gathered conch are deemed legal harvestable size, it is typically assumed these are juvenile conch because adults are seldom found in such shallow water. Only when a conch approaches sexually maturity (~ 3 years), they migrate from shallow developmental habitats to deeper and safer waters. A conch’s life history makes them extremely susceptible to poaching.

For two weeks this August, I accompanied Jennifer Doerr, Dr. Ron Hill, and their team, from the NOAA Galveston Laboratory Fishery Ecology Branch, on conch density and habitat surveys around Culebra, PR. Rarely finding adult conch, our randomly selected surveys around Culebra validated our UMASS team’s original hypothesis about this depleted stock.

We deployed 14 acoustic receivers across two bays; based on the density surveys and degree of “human impact”. We tagged 10 conch in each bay (20 in total) to elucidate the in-season and seasonal movements (i.e., spring into summer), and habitat use differences in impacted and non-impacted areas.

To investigate additional potential contributing factors, we collected benthic core samples that may cue researchers on conch grain size preferences. Considering conch spend a substantial part of their life history in these neritic zones, they may be susceptible to increasing anthropogenic disturbances concentrated along the shoreline and in coastal areas (e.g., sedimentation from mangrove clearing, road construction, etc.).