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Recreational fishing is a critical component of South Florida’s economy, making the health of local fish communities crucial for both our economic and ecological well-being. With this in mind, ForEverglades Fellow and FIU Tropics PhD student Carissa Gervasi explores the effects of marine protected areas on fish communities and recreational fishing.

Gervasi’s work with FIU’s Florida Coastal Everglades Long Term Ecological Research program and major advisor Dr. Jennifer Rehage will serve to assess the effects of the 35-year closure of two Everglades National Park coastal embayments collectively known as the Crocodile Sanctuary. With one of the two embayments in the sanctuary having recently been re-opened to non-motorized access and catch-and-release fishing, Gervasi now has the unique opportunity to compare data from three different types of sites: closed, limited non-motorized access for catch and release, and an open recreational fishery.

Through the use of visual surveys, an angler reporting system, and seine sampling, she will assess how the decades-long closure impacted fish community metrics including abundance, size, and diversity by collecting and comparing data within the three different sites. In addition to this assessment of fish communities, she will examine the resulting quality of recreational fishing and overall visitor experience.

This insight into the effectiveness of managing strategies, urges Gervasi, is invaluable. As she explains, the key to successful management is balance:

“Recreational fishing is one of the biggest components of the economy here in South Florida. For that reason, angler satisfaction is extremely important. However, conserving the populations that anglers rely upon is also very important. We need to have a balance where people are allowed to fish, but not to the point where they exploit the populations that we have here.”

One of the purposes of marine protected areas (MPAs) is to restore populations and allow them to spill over and replenish the fisheries by increasing the quantity and size of the fish sought by anglers. This makes them a valuable tool in striking the delicate balance described by Gervasi.

The overarching goal of her research is then to determine whether or not the Crocodile Sanctuary has in fact acted as an MPA. If it has, which seems to be the case according to preliminary evidence, then this area must maintain its integrity as a vital component of our ecosystem.

To learn more about this research, visit Rehage’s Coastal Fisheries Lab site.