[GUEST POST] By: Matt Shinego, UF IFAS Nature Coast Biological Station Intern (Fall 2016-Spring 2017)
Hello, my name is Matt, and I’m addicted to the outdoors. I’ve made it eight days without succumbing to the temptation to go for a hike or cast a line – with three tests next week, I can’t afford to leave the library for fun in the sun. This is a pretty typical sad story among college students, but luckily, I found a way to combine my studies and my passions to get my nature fix. Last September, I was forwarded a help-wanted posting from the UF IFAS Nature Coast Biological Station. “Research internship, paid position, transportation provided.” Though the subject of the work wasn’t exactly in line with my ichthyology interests, I decided that anywhere was a good place to start when coming into the professional world with a blank slate. After the application and interview process, I was fortunate enough to be selected to take on the project.
QUANTIFYING SEABIRD-ANGLER INTERACTIONS ALONG FLORIDA’S NATURE COAST
This is the research I conducted! See, seabirds hanging around public piers sometimes get caught in fishing gear, and little scientific study had been done to determine how often anglers had these interactions, or if they knew how to properly handle a hooked bird. (Read this to learn how). A bird cut loose with line hanging off is likely to get tangled in trees when roosting and die. Back in 2007, the US Fish and Wildlife Service identified brown pelicans and other seabirds as being at high risk of injury and mortality in hook-and-line fishing, and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission recently acted on this by beginning their campaign “Don’t Cut the Line” to educate anglers and reduce this mortality. My job was to assess the percentages of anglers who had experienced seabird hookings, had seen information about preventing the entanglement of birds, and were influenced by this information.
HELLO, MY NAME IS MATT AND I’M CONDUCTING SURVEYS ON BEHALF OF UF…
To collect this data, I conducted pier-intercept surveys. This was the fun part of the job, when I got to go hang out in the sunshine and chat with anglers while they fished. On good fishing days, when the weather was nice and I was likely to find plenty of anglers gunning for a slot-sized red, I would drive from Gainesville to one of the three survey sites: Cedar Key, Yankeetown/Inglis, or Crystal River. There, I’d grab my clipboards, strap on my fanny pack loaded with informational brochures, and start working my way down the pier. Many times people would see the door decals on my truck and preemptively pull out their fishing licenses, then wonder why I wore a Hawaiian shirt and looked too young to carry a wildlife law enforcement badge.
The shore fishing community surprised me. I was initially hesitant to bother people sitting in silence, enjoying their day. My worry that fishermen would decline to participate was unfounded; nearly everybody struck up warm conversation that extended beyond my list of survey questions. In fact, I had a mere dozen rejections, and the majority of these were due to a language barrier. I’m not sure why people were so willing to respond to my survey. Maybe shore anglers are more accustomed to inevitable interactions when sharing close quarters, crossing lines, and helping each other out, or maybe they were open to any relief from the boredom of a slow bite. Either way, I learned just as much about local angling techniques as I did about my research topic. I recommend that anyone looking to improve their fishing go spend some time on the piers, making friends.
PUTTING THE PIECES TOGETHER
I spent about three months collecting nearly 200 surveys, or about 60 from each town. The results were uplifting: only about 1 in 10 people had hooked seabirds while fishing last year, and 1 in 5 had seen another fisherman hook a bird. Given that the anglers I interviewed averaged 40 fishing trips a year, this isn’t very many hooked birds for as much as people are out on the piers!
Unfortunately, people still do cut the line after hooking seabirds. This is especially true of Cedar Key, where one in four anglers who hooked a bird themselves cut the line, and nearly half of the birds anglers saw get hooked flew away with line attached. Many of these reported interactions came from the City Pier downtown. There, large crowds, pelicans habituated to being fed fish scraps, and the tall pier combine to make a perfect storm of sorts. Regulars at the pier also suggested that many anglers are visitors to the island who don’t know how to prevent seabird hookings. They also reported some good news: since educational signs were posted on the pier last year, the hookings they witnessed decreased by a self-estimated fifty percent! Though non-scientific, this colloquial evidence helps to validate investment in public outreach measures like signage and workshops.
Though the signs help many people, lots of us (myself included) tend to walk right by without reading them. Anglers who had decided to cut the line, believing it was better for the bird than dragging it up to the pier, often contradictingly answered that they had seen signage about preventing the entanglement of birds in fishing line before. These misguided anglers, anglers who haven’t ever learned to Reel Remove Release, and even anglers too intimidated to try reeling in a panicked pelican, reported that fishermen willing to help others on the pier are an invaluable resource. A large portion of anglers who properly removed hooked birds from the line said that other people on the pier who had dealt with hooked birds before helped guide them. In some cases, everyone fishing on the pier pitched in! These instances show the value of shore fishing communities; new fishermen can learn from the experienced anglers sitting down the pier. Both local fishing techniques and the conservationist spirit get passed down to the next generation of anglers.
Tips and tricks on preventing seabird entanglement from the locals
- Keep your poles to a minimum! With more than two in the water, it’s hard to keep track of them and keep them away from waiting birds. Additionally, on crowded days, you’re much more likely to be tangled with a neighbor’s hooked bird, putting it in double jeopardy.
- If you lean rods against the rail, fasten the bottom of the rod to the railing with a bungee. Unsuspecting pelicans flying by often run right into monofilament line, ending up dragging the line all the way to the hook and then pulling the rod into the water. A bungee will save your expensive rod and give you a chance to Reel, Remove, and Release the bird unharmed!
- Keep your topwater lures in the tackle box when birds are diving – more than a few hookings came from circling seagulls.
- Watch your baited hooks at all times! Birds habituated to stealing bait pounce at any opportunity. Whether cast out on a bobber or resting on the dock while you wipe your hands, keep the baited hooks in sight so you can wave off any bold seabirds.
- Always make sure to follow the preventative tips listed on pier signs!
WRAPPING IT ALL UP
By the time I was ready to share my findings with the public, I was a veritable expert in Nature Coast bird-angler interactions. I could generalize categories of fishermen, tell you how prevalent bird hookings really were in each town, and even recall if there were mono recycling bins at a particular pier. I had heard the personal takes of every regular in the area, and could solve the incidental hooking problem single-handedly!
That’s not why we conduct scientific research, though. While suggestions to add signs to this pier, hold workshops at another, and limit poles at a third are useful for local administration, the value of this study goes beyond Nature Coast improvements. My findings needed to be quantified and shared so the scientific community could use these conclusions. With a published study, other researches can compare to their own work and draw conclusions on the causes of seabird hookings. Wildlife authorities can point to hard evidence when justifying measures they take to solve the bird entanglement problem – there is a significant portion of anglers who cut the line rather than removing the hook! The study helps show authorities that this is often a localized problem, and some solutions need to reflect the circumstances at each fishing pier. Most importantly, this study begins to quantify just how often anglers hook seabirds. Without the data collected for this study, all of these are just judged by feel – a best-guess of the rate, based on an individual’s experiences, and often not accurate. Even anglers who frequented certain piers drastically contradicted each other’s estimates of the rates of bird-angler interactions on the pier.
Quantifying the data collected was no easy task. Even though many of the survey questions were numerical, there was plenty of opportunity for free response, and I took additional qualitative notes on top of all that. That was pretty difficult to compile into an Excel spreadsheet! Though I found the qualitative data very valuable for drawing conclusions, I had to base my findings report on the numbers and only use the qualitative data to temper it. This way, my report reflected a repeatable experiment that other scientists could draw their own conclusions from.
To get the results out there, I decided to present a research poster at the Big Bend Science Symposium in Cedar Key. Designing the poster was tedious – formatting was almost harder than summarizing my research! Presenting a poster didn’t give me as wide an audience as a lecture since I didn’t have an entire audience forced to listen to me speak, but it did allow me the chance to intimately discuss with researchers, Wildlife officials, and citizens who found the poster interesting.
THE SHOW’S NOT OVER…
I thought this research project would end with the presentation of my findings. However, as word circulates in the sometimes molasses-slow scientific community, Angler-Bird interactions are drawing some interest. To make the findings immediately available to all, I may be drafting a research paper soon. This is a big deal for a sophomore intern! Authorship is great for the CV and career, but more importantly, it gives me intimate experience with the scientific process from start to finish. All this came from one internship at the Nature Coast Biological Station, and the amazing opportunities they have provided me. I am beyond grateful that I was given the chance to conduct this research first-hand, and with some autonomy to shape the process too!
I’m not ready for retirement yet, though. With plenty of the 240 work hours I was hired for still left, I’ve been assigned to another research project developing in Cedar Key: the Joe Raines shoreline restoration. Look for another post soon about my totally different experience working there!