Conservationists Say Scientists Removed Wildlife Specimens From Red Tide Waters Near Blue Heron Bridge

This parrotfish at Blue Heron Bridge represents one of the species that the FWC permit allowed Moody Gardens to take.
Photo by Jim Abernethy
This parrotfish at Blue Heron Bridge represents one of the species that the FWC permit allowed Moody Gardens to take.
Conservationists reacted with outrage this week after discovering an excessive amount of marine life specimens were removed by scientists at Phil Foster State Park near Riviera Beach. 

Biologists from Texas A&M University and Moody Gardens Aquarium took the sealife from an area near the Blue Heron Bridge, which is internationally known as a biodiversity hotspot. Guests visit to dive, snorkel, swim, and photograph there.

State records show that a collection permit — which is still valid for another year — allows biologists to take up to 4,300 animals. While Texas A&M scientists say only 40 fish were taken, activists claim there were far more and they were removed from an area no larger than a football field. And the activists have pictures that indicate they are correct.

“That is ridiculous,” says Jeff Nelson, director of the Blue Heron Bridge Preservation Initiative. “You could create a chain reaction and could end up losing a system... you wipe it all out.”

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission says it had no way to know so many specimens would be taken from the small area near Blue Heron Bridge.

“We wanted them to utilize that entire area of coverage to collect from,” says Carol Lyn Parrish, public information coordinator for FWC’s south region. “They had the option to collect anywhere from Palm Beach County all the way down to Monroe County.”

FWC completed onsite inspections at Blue Heron Bridge this past Friday and Saturday and no citations were issued. But they found the collection disruptive enough to exclude Blue Heron Bridge and Phil Foster Park from further collection. Moody’s biologists returned to Texas after the change was made.
click to enlarge
Jim Abernethy, of WildlifeVoice, says that the biologists brought this truck with a four-foot-deep, 7-foot-diameter pool and big coolers to haul their catch.
Photo by Jim Abernethy
Moody Gardens animal husbandry manager Greg Whittaker maintains the scientists did nothing illegal when they collected fish at Blue Heron Bridge during a series of eight dives between October 2 and 6.

But the Blue Heron Initiatives' Nelson says the divers' concentration on a single area can wreak havoc on rare species, such as seahorses. "The whole thought was that they were going to collect over a one-year period,” he says. “If you take five seahorses out of there, you have just wiped out a whole colony.”

FWC does not yet have an official accounting of the collected wildlife. “They have to report to us what they collected, but we don’t have to inspect every special activity license holder,” says Tom Reinert, regional FWC director. “That’s not possible.” Moody Gardens has until the expiration of the permit to report the details of the take.

Moody Gardens Whittaker says the permit allowed removal of more animals than were needed — only about ten samples each of one or two dozen species. He says an estimated 62 varieties of fish were taken from both Blue Heron Bridge and a marina in Fort Pierce.

Whittaker adds that his divers were not fully informed about the local red tide situation. “We don’t want to collect animals that are impaired in any way or are already stressed,” Whittaker says. “It’s a judgment call by the staff when they are in the field. Over the course of the week, we kind of picked and chose where the cleaner water choices would be.

“I think that in 20/20 hindsight, there are a lot of things that we would have done differently,” he says. “If we had engaged locals, they would have at least had the opportunity to have known what our motives are... We are sorry from the standpoint that we treaded on toes that we shouldn’t have.”

A public statement by Texas A&M says that only 40 fish were collected and retained and that while some fish were sent to the university, most were kept by Moody Gardens as part of their captive breeding study program. The statement also contends that no threatened or endangered species were removed.

Plans are underway for conservationists from the Blue Heron Bridge Preservation Initiative and representatives from FWC to meet in December to make sure nothing like this happens again. The discussion was planned before last week's incident took place. “There is currently a proposal to FWC to take a look at that area and review whether or not we want to make that a no-take area,” Parrish says.