Lower Keys Guides Association Continues to Provide Monitoring Tools and Captained-Vessel Support Following Unusual Fish Behavior Event

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Lower Keys Guides Association Continues to Provide Monitoring Tools and Captained-Vessel Support Following Unusual Fish Behavior Event

February 28, 2024  

In November 2023, guide members of the Key West and Lower Keys Fishing Guides Association (dba Lower Keys Guides Association or LKGA) started noticing unusual fish behavior in the Lower Keys.  The behavior, initially observed in bait fish often after being exposed to a stimulating or stress event, consisted of spinning in tight circles with their heads elevated and/or out of the water, equilibrium and/or balance problems including swimming upside down and/or on their sides, and bobbing/sinking to the ocean bottom and rising to the surface. The LKGA has an established relationship with Bonefish & Tarpon Trust, specifically on science-based initiatives related to priority fish species and ecosystem conservation, preservation, and restoration in the Florida Keys. As more unusual fish behavior was observed, members of the Lower Keys guiding community including LKGA guide and angler members started reporting these observances to our partners at BTT.  Realizing the unusual behavior was persisting, in December of 2023, the LKGA, with guidance from BTT, established an online Observation Report Form that was added to our website (LKGA.org), encouraging members of our organization or anyone in the community witnessing unusual fish behavior, fish kills, water discoloration, and even navigational hazards to report it using the report form.

In early January, Bonefish & Tarpon Trust initiated and mobilized a network of scientific organizations, academic institutions, and state and federal agencies to cross-reference, and share current knowledge of the concerning fish behavior across organizations. This led to the creation of a working group for coordination of sampling efforts, sharing and reporting findings in real-time, strategically discuss public outreach & communications, engaging in collaborative future research discussions, and identifying rapid response funding, if necessary.  To date, multiple institutions have been collaborating on this effort including Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission (FWC), Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP), Florida Gulf Coast University (FCGU), University of Southern Alabama (USA), Florida International University (FIU), and of course Bonefish & Tarpon Trust. Other organizations have been briefed on and monitoring the situation closely, including the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, the Dry Tortugas and Biscayne National Park Service, and Florida Keys Fishing Guides Association.

Reports of spinning fish have continued to persist over the past few weeks, with nearly 30 species exhibiting symptoms. Initially, the reports seemed to be consistently observed between Sugarloaf Key and Big Pine Key, however, there have been a few reports outside of the initial zone including Key West, Key Largo and Miami. Dozens of observation reports have been received and shared with all institutions and agencies, including FWC’s Fish Kill Hotline.

To date, multiple mass sampling events have occurred with multi-institutional support.  LKGA and our captains have provided boat and navigational knowledge/expertise in assisting with observations and sample collections as requested by partnering institutions.  Our LKGA guides, as well as our angler membership base, are committed to continue to provide vessel and local navigational expertise to institutions and agencies needing ongoing support.  We remain vigilant in providing observation reports of unusual fish behavior, as well as areas where fish remain symptomless. LKGA supports continued efforts of sampling or monitoring current conditions and we are working to identify ways for our guides to provide consistent baseline reporting in all areas throughout Key West and the Lower Keys to serve as ongoing, baseline data in case of future disturbances.

The Lower Keys Guides Association encourages the community to be on the lookout for unusual fish behavior, and if witnessed, to report it to the LKGA Observation Form and/or the FWC Fish Kill Hotline. The importance of continued reports is of utmost priority as we continue to track activities in affected areas, the persistence of the behavior over time, identifying future research/sampling areas and help procure funding for research and restoration in the short and long term.

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