When I set my alarm for 5:30 on a Saturday morning, it means one of three things. It’s set for a work function, travel, or something really fun to do on my day off. That something fun to do was participating in the juvenile tarpon monitoring program at Wildflower Preserve in Englewood, Fla., with Lemon Bay Conservancy and the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Earlier this month, I groaned when my iPhone blared, telling me to get up. I pushed my cat away and told him, “five more minutes,” as he meowed in my face demanding to be fed breakfast.
I rolled in around midnight the night prior, after chilling with friends and family (including my at uncle’s band) at Sharky’s on the Pier in Venice and enjoying a few adult beverages. Days off are precious for me and I seriously asked myself, “Why did you say you’d volunteer today?”
Without throwing off my down comforter, which I sleep with all year round, I could tell it was a cold morning. Goosebumps tingled my body at the thought of jumping out from underneath the warm nest and stepping foot on the cold tile. I thought about ignoring my commitment, snuggling back into my nest and going back to sleep, but bragging rights, especially in the name of science, trump everything and I got ready for the morning of volunteering with fish.
“Wear something you don’t mind getting wet or muddy,” I was told. I looked on the Lemon Bay Conservancy’s website and saw volunteers in the water.
Ugh. It was 50-some degrees and thought I’d freeze my you-know-what off if I got in the water without hip waders. I decided if I had to do it, I’d risk hypothermia for the benefit of scientific research.
I contemplated pulling on a pair of thermal underwear but skipped it and went with a pair of unflattering mom-jeans, t-shirt, fleece jacket, water shoes and hat. I mean, I wasn’t going to a fashion show, right?
I met the other volunteers at 8 a.m. in the parking lot of Wildflower Preserve, which was once a golf course. Nature quickly took over the preserve, as did the Lemon Bay Conservancy (in 2011, raising $800,000 within a year) and they found “three of the preserve’s nine ponds are tidal ponds.”
Because of this, they are mangrove protected nurseries for juvenile snook and tarpon. (Source:Wildflower Preserve Brochure, published by the Lemon Bay Conservancy.) What’s pretty amazingly is “tarpon are born 100 miles in the Gulf of Mexico” and “by instinct…find their way back to the shoreline and into protected creeks and waterways” and it takes tarpon 10 years to mature (Source: Lemon Bay Conservancy)
The Lemon Bay Conservancy is working with Mote Marine Laboratory, the Bonefish & Tarpon Trust and FWC to study the tarpon at Wildflower. Tarpon fishing is an important economic generator not only for Florida but for Southwest Florida and particularly Boca Grande Pass and through research, scientists can monitor the species’ population health and perhaps determine how why they spend their younger years at Wildflower Preserve.
A big component of the research is netting juvenile tarpon, measuring them, sometimes tagging them and releasing them. Volunteers are primarily needed with the netting and thankfully, unless you want to get in the alligator-infested water, there’s no need to do so. The pro-volunteers and scientists have that covered.
The seine net used during my adventure was 600 feet long and about a dozen of us helped tow it in not once, but twice. Then put it on the boat. Twice. And into the shed. Once. Do you know how long 600 feet is?
I’m jumping ahead so let go back to the beginning. The first pond monitored was a small one and a cast net was tossed by FWC biologist Jamie Darrow. Before she skillfully tossed in the net, the water’s salinity, oxygen and temperature were measured. Readings indicated fresh water and an oxygen level less than in Lemon Bay which meant, conditions were most likely not ideal for juvenile tarpon or snook. Darrow pulled in the muck-filled net and although I was standing a good 10 to 15 feet away, I could smell the foulness. It was similar to that sulfur smell found in Yellowstone, like that of rotten eggs.
As suspected, nothing alive was pulled in on that cast and it was off to the next pond with the 600-foot green. A captain and a volunteer hopped in the aluminum boat and distributed the net ensuring floats were up and weights were down.
Once the net was dispersed, it was time for some of the prepared, hip wader wearing volunteers to begin hauling in the net with a couple of others grabbing fish. Some mullet were pulled in and released while juvenile snook and tarpon were placed in a bucket with water. Those of us on land were tasked at hauling in the net (because it was so large, there were two groups with each us pulling on the respective ends at the same time) and properly folding it.
This is where the “wear things you don’t mind getting wet or muddy” comes in. The net is wet and sometimes gross with mud. I don’t mind getting dirty but wasn’t expecting this. The girly-girl in me came out and I was constantly wiping my hands on my jeans and jacket.
After most of the net was hauled in and all of the fish were released from the net, the snook and tarpon were measured then released back into the water, passed from the biologist into the hands of a volunteer who passed it to another volunteer who passed it to another. The final pair of hands were gently lowered into the water while cradling the limp tarpon. He swayed his cupped hands side to side to encourage oxygen flow through the fish’s gills. Within seconds, the tarpon would twitch, jump out of the hands and be on its merry way.
The second pond netted one tarpon and several snook while the third and final pond netted more than 30 tarpon and a few snook. Sometimes during these excursions, larger tarpon are tagged with radio frequency identification (RFID) tags which ping to an antenna at the mouth of Lemon Creek which opens to Lemon Bay. The purpose is to track fish leaving and returning to the bay.
By 10:30 a.m., the volunteering experience was done. Three ponds were ponds, the net put away and I felt pretty dang good that I got my hands around something good for the local environment and economy.
Juvenile tarpon monitoring is conducted once a month at Wildflower Preserve during winter season and volunteers are always needed. The Lemon Bay Conservancy also offers guided walks through Wildflower as well as other programs. Visit their website to learn about the next tarpon monitoring event and to learn more about what LBC is doing. The organization recently received a sizable grant from NOAA to restore Wildflower Preserve.
If you plan on volunteering, be sure to bring water, wear a hat, sunscreen and depending on the weather, bring along some insect repellent. Dress in layers and water shoes and unsexy mom-jeans really aren’t necessary but wear sturdy shoes and clothes you don’t mind getting wet or muddy.