BY MARCY SHORTUSE - In the summer of 2004 Dr. Justin Grubich picked up the phone to take a call from a woman who said she was with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The woman, Kathy Guindon, talked with Justin for about 30 minutes foul-hooking tarpon, and he was asked to provide expert witness testimony on how tarpon feed.
He didn’t give the conversation much thought.
You see, while Justin is a Florida boy born and bred, he had never given much thought to using a piece of rubber or metal to catch a tarpon. And Guindon didn’t tell him that was what the study was about. But he gave his opinion, for what he thought it was worth, all about how a tarpon’s mouth parts work, how they approach prey, and their feeding habits in general.
It wasn’t until this year that he realized just how important his offhand comments had become to tarpon fishing regulations in Boca Grande Pass.
After all, he thought he was just having a casual conversation.
Justin is a fish-functional morphologist. He figures out how fish work, and he applies that knowledge to researching their evolution and ecology.
“I deconstruct how a fish eats, how they breathe, how they move,” he said. “But primarily how they feed. My original work was based on tarpon suction-feeding kinematics, and my findings were in a paper I published in 2001.”
That may have been how the FWC tracked Justin down at the Field Museum in Chicago in 2004, or it may have been through his mentor, Dr. Phil Motta. Either way, when Justin picked up that phone and had a 30-minute conversation with an FWC representative, he didn’t even know what a Boca Grande jig was, or how it is designed to work.
It is abundantly clear he had no clue just how important his answers were to the Florida fishing community.
For years he didn’t know what had become of the research. He was out of the country for many years, studying Red Sea lionfish and Nile perch in Egypt and teaching biomechanics, evolution and environmental science at the University of Cairo. When he came back to the United States he served in the Office of the Science and Technology Adviser to Secretary Hillary Clinton, and as a foreign affairs adviser on scientific issues such as climate change, coral reef conservation and international fisheries to the Cairo Initiative unveiled by President Obama in June 2009.
So when he returned to the Field Museum in Chicago just weeks ago, it was out of sheer coincidence that author Randy Wayne White and angler Bill Bishop tracked him down there. They used his old email address, which wasn’t even re-activated until a couple of weeks ago.
Randy explained through his email to Justin that he just wanted to talk to him about his input on the foul-hooking study. When Justin looked up Randy’s web page, he found his name there ... and not in the most positive light.
“Then I started to get inquisitive,” Justin said. “So Randy and I started an email conversation, I explained my brief involvement in the study, and how it was just a short phone call. Then they sent me the complete study.”
Justin was pretty shocked to see himself quoted in great detail throughout the study.
“Reading through it, to see how I was quoted ... considering in 2004 I had none of the information available to me about what kind of jig was being used, what kind of place Boca Grande Pass was ... I feel the information I gave to the FWC was used improperly,” he said.
Justin said that now that he knows more about the fishery, the jig, and the situation, he said it doesn’t seem to him that the tarpon are responding to the jigs with the intention of feeding. Because they don’t eat rubber or metal.
“They’re pretty discerning fish,” he said. “They wouldn’t have lasted 300 million years if they weren’t. With the scientific evidence obtained from tagging in the Boca Grande fishery, it shows the tarpon are down at deep depths during most of the day, then they come up and feed at night. Those guys who are fishing at night know that they’re feeding on the pass crabs coming in. So you can imagine how the fish feel during these tarpon tournaments during the day, these flotillas of boats dropping things on them.”
Justin likened it to the flossing situation with salmon on the west coast.
“When the salmon are coming up the rivers they’re stacked so thick, they had to make rules to apply to foul-hooking there. That’s a more probable scenario of what’s going on here.”
“I grew up in the Florida Keys, and have been fishing for tarpon since I was a teenager. I know how difficult they are to catch, and that every time you catch one it’s something special.”
As a sidenote, Dr. Phil Motta has also declared that the information he gave to FWC was improperly used in the study.
Justin has served as the Associate Director of Biodiversity Informatics at The Field Museum in Chicago and assistant professor of Biology at The American University in Cairo. He received his doctorate in evolution and ecology from Florida State University in 2001. He is a researcher at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, where he worked on reef fish biodiversity. In the summer of 2009, he was featured on the National Geographic Channel series “Hooked: Vampire Fish.”
The FWC will be meeting on Wednesday, June 12 in Lakeland to discuss Boca Grande Pass tarpon-fishing gear. The proposed rule would address the definition of snagging tarpon, and would prohibit gear rigged with a weight attached to the bottom of the hook. It would also enhance the definition of “snagging” and “snatch-hooking” within FWC regulations for tarpon.
See this week's letter to the editor for Justin’s letter to FWC Commissioner Ken Wright.
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