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Sapelo Partners on Fish Monitoring

Jun 16, 2021 | Reserves, Sapelo Island, Georgia

The white shrimp commercial fishery nets over 3 million pounds in Georgia every year. Photo courtesy of the Sapelo Island Reserve. 

The shores, sounds, and tidal creeks of Georgia’s Sapelo Reserve teem with fish and crustaceans, including white shrimp, a commercial fishery with a harvest that tops 3 million pounds in Georgia every year. Although long-term monitoring of coastal fishes has been ongoing in Georgia since 1976, tracking the extent, diversity, health, and abundance of these important fisheries within the range of their estuarine habitats has always been beyond the reach of any single organization to manage. To address this need Sapelo scientists decided to do what Reserves were designed to do: collaborate! 

“Juvenile and non-game fish trawls are really resource intensive in terms of time, labor, and equipment,” says Rachel Guy, the Reserve’s Research Coordinator. “We wanted to leverage the resources of different agencies and organizations in our area. Some have boats or technicians, others have fish expertise or funding. By pooling our efforts and resources, we thought we could come up with a sustainable network that we could all benefit from.”

Data from the EFMC will support local resource managers in understanding changes in anchovy populations. Photo courtesy of the Sapelo Island Reserve. 

These conversations led to the launch of the Estuarine Fish Monitoring Cooperative (EFMC). “The Reserve has been fostering local partnerships and relationships for more than 20 years, so it was really natural for us to reach out,” says Guy. “We are able to bring people together and hope to connect fish data to patterns or trends in the Reserve’s long-term water quality data.”

Through a partnership between the Reserve, the University of Georgia Marine Institute, the University of Georgia Marine Extension & Georgia Sea Grant, the University of Georgia School of Forestry & Natural Resources, and the College of Coastal Georgia, sampling boats will conduct EFMC monthly juvenile fish trawls at 33 locations. The data will be organized in a central database for use by researchers, fisheries managers, and educators. The EFMC database will also be a home for other scientific and opportunistic data collection—such as fish research and other trawl data collected by tourist or educational organizations. 

“Some fish populations can go through cycles of highs and lows that can take a decade to complete, which means you really need a long-term dataset to understand trends,” says Guy. “Sapelo has over 20 years of continuous water quality monitoring data. We’ve seen trends like warming winter water temperatures, but we have no equivalent fish diversity or abundance dataset to see how changing environmental conditions may be affecting fish communities in our estuaries.”

EFMC trawls capture data for many species, including small fish like bay anchovy, which are a prey species for commercial fish and ecologically important. Their decline would impact coastal human communities that depend on commercial fishing. Being able to compare the new EFMC fish data to the Reserve’s long-term water quality data will be a uniquely powerful resource for fisheries managers. Data from the EFMC, for example, will help local resource managers understand whether changes in anchovy populations are tied to climate change trends, or just reflect natural variability.

The EFMC data have been used to create curricula for students. Photo courtesy of the Sapelo Island Reserve. 

The reach of the EFMC extends beyond data collection—the partners are also training the next generation of Georgia’s coastal scientists. For example, faculty at the College of Coastal Georgia have used the EFMC data to create curricula for students. As the program expands, students will be brought into the field and taught field research skills, including best practices for boating, data collection, and fish identification.

“Working with the cooperative is such an honor and just outright fun,” says Lauren Carroll, a Georgia Sea Grant intern working with the Reserve, who helped test the program’s hands-on curriculum. “Everyone has been so patient, informative, and encouraging as I build up my boating and fish identification skills. The skills I am learning feel tailor-made for the experience I sought in graduate school. I feel privileged to be able to be a part of a big, collaborative project from the beginning to gain the knowledge and experience for my future career.”

Since data collection began in April 2021, the program has conducted 77 sampling events and caught more than 12,000 critters and 56 individual species. Photo courtesy of the Sapelo Island Reserve. 

The EFMC officially began collecting data in April of 2021. Since they began, they’ve conducted 77 sampling events, with a total catch of more than 12,000 critters and 56 individual species. Guy has high hopes that the program will not only be a critical resource for understanding Georgia’s natural resources, but also the groundwork they’ve laid might also be transferable to other regions. 

“We’ve had so much momentum and so many committed people work with us on this,” says Guy. “And it’s generating excitement with other researchers and agencies already. I’m very hopeful it can grow!”

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ReservesSapelo Partners on Fish Monitoring