With each issue, Trib+Water brings you an interview with experts on water-related issues. Here is this week's subject:
James Simons is an associate research scientist with the Center for Coastal Studies at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. He is the lead investigator in a research project that involves restoring and managing fish communities in the Gulf of Mexico using ecosystem modeling. Simons and a team of researchers recently received a NOAA Restore Act Science Program grant to fund the research.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Trib+Water: Your research focuses on restoring fish communities in the Gulf. What’s happening to these communities and why is it necessary they be studied?
James Simons: There are a number of things that are going on with the fish. One, and it varies between the species of the fish, but some fish in some areas are being overfished. There are too many being taken, so that affects their ability to reproduce... Red snappers are one example. It’s probably sort of the poster child for the Gulf of Mexico. It’s probably the most hotly contested fish as far as the management goes, and in some areas it has been overfished, although it is recovering in some areas.
We have effects of pollution or oil that could be affecting the fish, and habitat destruction. In some areas, habitats are being destroyed that affect their ability to, especially as larvae and juveniles, have areas to grow up in.
So those are some of the areas. Also there has been a slight movement of some species north. The water temperatures have increased slightly and some species are found a little farther north than they have been in the past, which can affect the overall community composition and the food web. That’s one of the things that a lot of the models look at, the overall entire food web, not just one particular species. That’s part of the whole idea behind this project.
Trib+Water: A lot of your work has to do with ecosystem modeling. I believe you just received a NOAA grant to do that. How is ecosystem modeling being approached in this project?
Simons: Well, what we’re doing first of all is we’re examining what models are out there. There’s a group in Florida at the University of Miami that is the key group that’s doing the model review... There are several other modelers, there’s a modeler at the University of South Florida, and to be quite honest, I am not a modeler… although I’ve done a tiny bit of modeling, but I don’t consider myself a "ecosystem modeler." But I’ve been working with quite a few of them in the past and present.
So those guys, particularly the ones in Miami, are the ones reviewing the model. And then the other modelers and the ones in Florida… they will be doing some testing of the models using data sets, and see how and if the models improve. They have statistical routines that they can run and test the improvement of the model as far as predictability, how well it’s able to predict changes based on different factors they can put into effect... They can essentially tune the model to using real data so that they can have a fair amount of confidence that the model is more or less behaving as the ecosystem is behaving.
Trib+Water: How do you plan to approach management and restoration efforts in the communities?
Simons: When we were planning this project, one of the things we decided to do was a workshop where we invited modelers. We invited management. And we also invited fishermen because too many times the models are done maybe a little bit outside the realm of the managers and fishermen. There’s not a lot of input from the managers or the fishermen and so the managers are resistant to use it because they don’t understand them. They’ve had little or no input so there's a little bit of distrust there perhaps.
So the idea of the workshop is to bring the managers and modelers and the fishermen into this same place, and we’ll have some pre-workshop communication with these folks so that we’re all on the same level, the same sheet of music, so to speak. The idea is to get input from the managers and input from the fishermen about what they see are restoration issues and what they see as problems with the fisheries, and to see if we can get the modelers and the fishermen and the managers together and discuss these issues and figure out if indeed the models can be used to answer questions that the modelers and fishermen have.
Trib+Water: What kind of impact do these problems that fish communities are facing on Texas, its residents and the Gulf of Mexico?
Simons: Part of the problem, and I’ve run into this with this recent project I’ve been working on… particularly in the fishing community, they are very leery of regulation and the regulations of both the federal and the state, but more so maybe the federal. Those regulations can have an impact on how many days they can fish, and if they can only fish a small number of days, they can’t make much money, so it can have a huge economic impact on the fishermen.
If, say for example, red snapper is only open in federal water for a few days, then that impacts them greatly. So bringing the modelers, managers and fishermen together to get a better understanding between everybody could, and I’m not saying it will, but it could improve the management so fishermen are more happy and the fish are happier because the fish survive and reproduce better.
So the goal is to produce a situation where fishermen can have a better fishing schedule and make their living, yet the fish are still happy, productive communities that are not overfished and produce enough fish so that the fishermen can catch what they want. It really can have an economic impact based on what the managers set as the number of fishing days and the limits and the lengths and all that.
Trib+Water: What are your biggest concerns with the state of the Gulf of Mexico and its fish communities?
Simons: I guess to me the biggest concern is that we develop a good, sound, scientific understanding of all the interrelationships of the fishes in the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem, so that we can understand the effects of fishing on different species.
The models are multi-species models that look at a vast array of fish and not just a single fish. It considers all of the interactions between fishes and also its prey, and that includes the invertebrates. I would say developing that understanding that goes into developing good management models, good management techniques so we can continue to have healthy fisheries.
In general I tend to think the fisheries are pretty good. There are a few problem areas from time to time, but overall the fisheries in the Gulf tend to be pretty healthy at the present.