Many people associate “science” with old nightmares of their high school biology class taught by a frumpy old science teacher, an image of some nerdy guy sitting in a lab, or, at best, Bill Nye the Science Guy. However, in the last few years, watermen like Cliff Kapono a native Hawaiian pursuing a Ph.D. in Chemistry, and Ian Towne, a mainland spear fisherman from Destin Florida chasing down a masters in marine biology, are shaking things up by combining their passions for surfing and spearfishing with the environment and sustainability.
Cliff has been featured in a number of publications and is highly regarded for his surfing skills in addition to his work with sustainability and environmental films in his pursuit to understand the types of ocean bacteria common on surfers, mainly with the Surfer Biome Project, on the other hand, is a relatively unknown spear fisherman with a love for the ocean and all the creatures that live in it.
Ian Towne is currently a master’s researcher at Nova Southeastern University where he is studying Hogfish (Lachnolaimus maximus) off the eastern coast of Florida. As an avid spear fisher, Ian noticed this species was becoming smaller and less prevalent on the coastal reefs. After conducting some basic research he realized hogfish regulations in the Southern States hadn’t been changed for more than two decades while the scientific community was giving this species little attention. This was likely because Hogfish are mostly caught by spear fishermen and fisheries biologists were only focusing their attention on charter boats at marinas, which hardly ever catch the elusive Hogfish on hook and line.
As a result, regulators didn’t catch on that the Hogish had quickly become overfished in Southern Florida and the Florida Keys (oops). In an effort to identify the reasons for the decline of this iconic species, Ian uncovered a number of issues that were causing their decline, building from a study that began in 1995 which showed the average size of a 12-year-old hogfish in the Florida Keys was 13.5 inches, compared to 23.5 inches in areas such as the Dry Tortugas, North Carolina, and Cuba. The fish in Florida were literally 10 inches smaller than anywhere else and this was most likely due to intense fishing pressure.
Ian theorized that the only fish who were able to survive to an older age were the ones who were genetically weaker and thus grew to the legal size of 12 inches much slower than the other Hogfish. As a result, it was these fish who were able to reproduce and introduce their slow-growing genes back into the population. Coincidently the regulation size for Hogfish for the last several years has been 12 inches, which is the minimum size that a Hogfish is mature enough to be able to transition to becoming a male and the fishing pressure in these areas became so high that the majority of fish over 12 inches had been harvested at the exact time that they were able to reproduce.
In the spearfishing community, the Hogfish is symbolic of all that we stand for and is often depicted on apparel and gear as the iconic and representative species of the sport. Ironically, the same fish has become overfished to the point of population collapse. Ian recognized that “we have to do something not just for the Hogfish, but also for the sport and culture” that spear fishermen and this fish represent.
Spear fishing is one of the most ethical and environmental ways to fish – especially since the community of freedivers only target the individual fish they seek to catch and cause no harm to others. While hook and line fishermen see only a blue wavy surface and catch fish indiscriminately, spearos are an active part of the environment, to the point where they can see dramatic the dramatic effects caused by human actions. This includes things like the decline in fish populations, pollution and illegal dumping activities, and the effects of bottom trawling and trap fishing which scour the ocean floor and devour aquatic resources.
Being both a spearfishermen and a scientist, Ian felt an intense responsibility to take action and create change. By looking at the situation of the Hogfish, he knew the best way to go about this was to study their age and growth. Devising a strategy that involved analysing Hogfish otoliths (earbones) which can show a fish’s age and comparing it to the fish’s length, he has been able to create growth curves and calculate mortality rates in comparison to their age. He then uses this information to generate information of Hogfish growth rates and compare them to the population level so that other fisheries scientists can assess the population and produce appropriate catch limits and size regulations.
Ian has been working with the spearfishing community to collect samples by enlisting them to take photos of their catches and provide the length of Hogfish after filleting and eating them. He then travels around the state of Florida, often meeting the fishermen at the dock, to collect the carcasses of Hogfish that have been caught and then analyzes the otoliths, gonads, and coloration as well as the location of the catch (which is difficult as many fishermen will not give out their fishing spots). After doing the lab work, Ian provides the report of his findings to the fishermen who provided samples that includes the fish’s age as well as a Hogfish Research Hat and T-shirt.
The information that Ian collects is being used to understand the seasonal migratory patterns of Hogfish along the reef tracts, spawning locations and behavior, and other crucial data which can be used to effectively manage the population so that there can be bigger and a more plentiful abundance of fish to catch in the future.
As of August 24th the recreational harvest of Hogfish in the federal water off Florida’s Atlantic and Southern Gulf Coasts has been closed. New management boundaries will also be taking effect between the Keys/east Florida and Gulf stocks which have recently been identified as genetically different populations. Effective since August 24th, new size and catch limits will be in place for Hogfish in the state of Florida with a lowering of the daily bag limit from five to one fish per harvester and a minimum size of 16 inches (fork length) in the Atlantic with a recreational harvest season of May 1 to October 31. On the Gulf coast the recreational and commercial size limits have been increased to 14 inches (for length).