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One Man’s Quest To Restore Fish Populations, A Handful At A Time

Discussion in 'Conservation' started by Salty, Jul 22, 2015.

  1. Salty

    Salty Reef Peeps Curator Founding Member

    Long Beach, CA.
    When Florida constructed the miles of canals and seawalls that control its waterways, most of the planning focused on making people’s lives easier—not on fish-friendly concrete alternatives. Now fish populations are dropping, and a lack of habitat—and food—is to blame.

    One day, on his daily commute to his job in Gainesville, Sarasota resident Philip Chiocchio dreamed up a plan to save the fish. The art school teacher and former fish farmer bought a few bags of fish food and sat at Sun Circle Park on Sarasota Bay, sprinkling the food to attract fish.

    A ball of sardines being hunted by sailfish. (Photo: Paul Nicklen/Getty Images)

    “I realized that we’ve disrupted our entire planet,” Chiocchio said. “We’ve put up seawalls, we’ve dug these canals, but not a single thought went into the design of those disturbed areas for baitfish. There’s no food, shelter, or spawning ground.”

    Chiocchio started enlisting volunteers to feed fish in “mini nurseries” at four locations to try to boost their populations. About a year into the project, Chiocchio said he is seeing the second generation of needlefish and sheepshead in the feeding spots. He has dubbed the project SeaBaybies and has applied for a grant from the Gulf Coast Innovation Challenge.

    Philip Chiocchio, founder of SeaBaybies. (Courtesy: Philip Chiocchio)

    So, Why Should You Care?

    Chiocchio said the key to supporting large fish is to nurture their bait. With a larger baitfish population, Florida’s recreational and commercial fisheries could see healthier populations of struggling species such as red snapper, spotted sea trout, and snook. One study published by the Lenfest Ocean Program found that the global commercial value of baitfish such as anchovies, pinfish, herring, and sardines adds up to $5.6 billion if they are caught directly. But if they’re left in the ocean as prey for larger fish, their supportive value nearly doubles, totaling $11.3 billion.

    “It’s really a wildlife aquaculture project,” Chiocchio said, adding that he only puts in the amount of fish pellets and plankton the baby baitfish can eat in 15 minutes, so the waters don’t become full of extraneous food. “If everyone did this on their dock or seawall, each one of these canals would become a mini estuary, and we could blow up the abundance of the baitfish and bring back the birds and bring back an appreciation for nature in the whole.”

    This is not the first project to approach fish restoration in an unusual way. In 2013, the Army Corps of Engineers announced a project to sink Christmas trees into lakes in Arkansas. The trees would provide food as well as shelter for bass, catfish, crappie, and walleye and would last about eight years before needing to be replaced. The idea is that fish need more cover to hide, spawn, and live in—and the trees would otherwise be burned.

    In California, an experiment in raising fish in hatcheries and releasing them to boost populations of wild fish is in its third decade. The Ocean Resources Enhancement and Hatchery Program released its two-millionth fish last summer, said Valerie Taylor, the project’s coordinator.

    The juvenile white seabass are raised in hatcheries and fish pens until they reach 10 inches in length. The fish then have a chip implanted in their cheek, and officials ask the fishing public for heads of white seabass to get an accurate count of how many fish came from the hatchery project. The project is starting to evaluate how successful it’s been in restoring populations, which have declined 90 percent in the past five decades.

    For SeaBaybies founder Chiocchio, a key to his project is the low cost of making a mini fish nursery, complete with baby crabs, sardines, and mullet.

    “I’m only putting in a cup of food, so it’s costing me maybe two or four cents per day,” he said. “I’ve got a million-dollar aquarium for a few cents per day.”

    Katharine Gammon has written for Nature, Wired , Discover, and Popular Science. A new mom, she lives in Santa Monica.
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    Last edited: Jul 22, 2015
  2. Blue Reef

    Blue Reef Reefer

    Ha! What a great project!