YOU can help with the odd fish behavior by reporting what you see

Scott Atwell, Communications and Outreach Manager for the National Marine Sanctuary, joined Good Morning Keys on KeysTalk 96.9/102.5FM this morning to talk about the strange fish activity that has been seen recently.

What’s been happening?

Atwell assured, “I want the listeners to know that FWC is taking the lead and trying to figure out what’s going on here and they’ve got a couple of different mechanisms for reporting information, because right now, information is the most valuable currency that that we can have. So there are two different ways to report. One, if it’s a sawfish, specifically, the other if it’s a fish of any kind that’s displaying unusual behavior. The sawfish, it’s an endangered species, more than 20 have been identified as being dead just this calendar year. So obviously, that’s a very concerning thing. FWC has established a specific email address for listeners and people of the public to report anything they see with sawfish, even if you see a healthy sawfish, but especially if one is sick, injured, or dead.”

The email is [email protected]

Atwell said, “What they’re interested in knowing is the date, the time, the location of the encounter, estimated length of the fish, the water depth that you were in, and any other relevant details. Of course, if you do encounter a sawfish because they are an endangered species, just a reminder, it’s illegal to catch them harm, harass, obviously, kill them. So that’s for the sawfish. But as you know, every day, we’re seeing reports and videos and pictures of all other species of fish that are behaving unusual. For those reports, the FWC has a different web form and it’s on their website.”

That site is here:

Atwell said, “It’s in the news all around the globe. In fact, I just read a story this morning, published by National Geographic, which correctly pointed out that despite the fact that this seems like a recent phenomenon, that the reports date back to last fall, when divers, swimmers, fishermen, people around the water began noticing this erratic behavior. So we’ve got all parts of academia and the government looking into it, I’m sure we’re going to figure out what’s going on. But until then, information is the currency and the public can play a role by reporting what they see. Because it’s fish and fish are food for birds, fish are food for humans, that depending on what this turns out to be that yes, birds can be affected, even humans, in some cases, if they eat fish that have been infected with some sort of toxin, so it’s scary. Everyone’s worried about it. I’m sure we’ll figure it out sooner than later.”

What is a superintendent’s permit?

Atwell said, “It’s very similar to the hundreds of permits that we approve every year for people to do work in the sanctuary and we posted it simply to remind our viewers and listeners in the public that we have to abide by the rules as well. I saw a post from a sawfish rescue organization where they were doing a necropsy, I guess on a sawfish and at the end of their posts, they said this was done under this permit number. The reason that they did that is because that’s the endangered species. It would have been illegal to be doing what they’re doing, we’re not for the fact that they were permitted to do so. So that’s the idea of permits and the use of permits is for the public to understand that there are some activities within sanctuary waters that require a permit. We are bound by those same rules. Mostly it’s about placing things on the sea floor, markers, cultural resources, what we call maritime heritage. So shipwrecks and even operating vessels in areas where they would otherwise be prohibited, anytime our teams have to undertake these activities that would otherwise be prohibited, we have to go through the same process, log the permit number, and our superintendent has to sign off on it. So it’s a good reminder that these are the ways in which we protect the sanctuary and the resources and we have to abide by the rules just like everyone else.”

The general public cannot place anything on the sea floor without a permit.

Atwell said, “The general rule is that any equipment on the seabed, even if temporary, is prohibited without a permit. The thing about when the boat races come and they’ve got those large boundary markers for the boats to race around, they apply for a permit to actually be able to tether those to the seafloor. Even strangely enough, fireworks. In the Keys, if you’re firing fireworks, whatever debris is leftover is going to fall into the water. So all of the folks who are in the fireworks business know that they have to have a permit from the sanctuary so they are certifying that they are conducting themselves in a way that that debris will not be harmful to the environment. Here’s an example. Just last week, our team came across a fish aggregating device floating in 15 feet of water off of Tavernier. It’s sort of almost like a shade, plastic shade that floats on the surface. But it’s tied to the sea floor and it acts like seaweed. We know that fish aggregate under a seaweed line. So the fish will aggregate under these devices that are usually tethered to the seafloor. That is illegal inside sanctuary waters. So we removed that particular device. If listeners are interested in finding out, you know what is and what isn’t prohibited, I encourage them to go to our website and simply in the search bar, type in permits and you’ll see everything you need to know about permits.”

The United Way has scholarships for students who would like to study marine life.

Atwell said, “I’d say there’s an incentive – about $5,000. Our friends at United Way of Collier and the Keys, one of our strategic partners committed to revitalizing the Florida Keys through reef restoration and beyond is launching its third year of Marine Science educational advancement scholarships. So it’s a fantastic opportunity for residents of the Keys who have plans or are currently studying in college for marine science and or marine technology related certificates, associate’s degrees bachelor’s, master’s, they are eligible for this program if they are a resident of the Keys. Last year, there were four recipients two were from Coral Shores High School, who are now studying at the University of South Florida and FSU respectively. There were also two students at the College of the Florida Keys. So the application period is open now until April the 17th. As I said, the scholarships are up to $5,000. A link for the information is available at the United Way of Collier in the Keys website. It’s also available on our social media pages from a couple of weeks ago. So we’re on Facebook, we’re on Twitter, or X and you can just scroll back and find those links as well. But it’s certainly a great opportunity for anyone who is interested in doing the kinds of things and most of our teens have studied during their college careers, marine science and technology.”

The sanctuary continues to keep an eye on water temperature.

Atwell said, “Even here during the winter months, temperatures are higher than they would normally have been, which of course, could be a harbinger for what’s coming our way. So we are continuing to keep an eye on water temperatures. We know what happened last year with the mass bleaching and the effects that had on the coral reefs. So just a heads up that they’re warmer right now than they normally are in March. So we’ll have an eye on that.”

For more information on the sanctuary, click here: