Student’s passion fuels his future

By Maria Gabriela Gonzalez Starchek & Candice Allouch

Ayi Ajavon grew up fascinated by how different fish species could live in a single ocean. He worked with native freshwater fish, giving him a glimpse into the world of fish research. He was hooked. 

“Although fish differ in physical characteristics, color, roles and size, they still share the same environment,” Ajavon said. “I find that fascinating.”

This summer, the Georgia State University student joined FIU Institute of Environment’s Coastal Ecosystems Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) site, funded by the National Science Foundation. Ajavon is working with the institute’s Rehage Lab for Coastal Fish Ecology & Fisheries, led by Jennifer Rehage.

In 2015, a seagrass die-off occurred in Florida Bay, claiming more than 40,000 acres of seagrass. The seagrass die-off caused a decline in popular sport fish such as Tarpon, Snook and Bonefish.

With mentorship from the Rehage Lab, Ajavon is spending the summer collecting the prey of these fish from the Florida Bay. Before the die-off, sportfish were easily found around the seagrass area. After the die-off, when many areas were left bare or with small patches of seagrass, fish populations changed and the large sport fish had to leave the area to search for food. Ajavon’s research focuses on predicting where the prey species are concentrated, which allows him to predict where the sport fish will hang out for food now that the habitat is recovering from the 2015 scenario. 

The seagrass die-off did not only have a detrimental impact on the life of marine species in Florida Bay, but it also affected Florida’s fishing industry. In Florida, the fishing industry, one of the largest in the country, has an economic impact of about $5 billion in saltwater commercial and recreational fishing. By understanding the whereabouts of different fish species, Ajavon’s research will help pinpoint seagrass areas that may need protection while promoting a sustainable fishing industry.

Ajavon plans on pursuing a master’s degree after he graduates from Georgia State University. Eventually, he wants to find a degree program that will allow him to continue working on similar projects he’s done with the Rehage Lab this summer.

To learn more about the Institute of Environment’s Coastal Ecosystems REU site, visit their website.