How many fish in the sea?

A trip to the Caribbean, shopping at the local seafood market, cutting into a wild-caught snapper — sound like a pretty good vacation? Maybe. For some. But for Virginia Shervette, an assistant professor in University of South Carolina Aiken's biology/geology department, it's all in a day's work.

Shervette recently returned from Puerto Rico, where she has been researching coral reef fish species through a collaboration with the Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources. The goal, she says, is to quantify the reproduction, age and growth of commercially and recreationally targeted fish species such as grouper, snapper, porgy and triggerfish.

The Sustainable Fisheries Management Act mandates periodic assessments to determine the effects of fishing on particular stocks, but running the models necessary to determine a stock's relative health requires basic information that in many cases isn't readily available.

"The U.S. has federal waters that we're responsible for managing around the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, but most of the Caribbean reef fish that are targeted commercially and recreationally are what we refer to as 'data poor,' " says Shervette.

"We just haven't invested as much money and resources into the Caribbean waters as we have into, for example, the Atlantic and Gulf waters, so any information that we can gather allows us to do the first basic steps to quantify those populations."

The Puerto Rico natural resources department conducts the reproductive part of the research while Shervette quantifies the population and age structure of a particular stock by examining the otoliths, or ear bones, of fish purchased at local markets or brought in by the Southeastern Area Monitoring and Assessment Program. This and other data get fed into models that help researchers determine a baseline. The federal government can then use that information to determine policies that ensure the sustainability of an important natural resource.

"Is the population healthy? With the number of individual fish being removed from the population by commercial and recreational fishing, are they still able to reproduce and create a sustainable amount of fish?" Shervette asks. "Or is there too much pressure? Does the federal government need to step in with some new regulations to prevent overfishing?"

It's satisfying work for Shervette, though not necessarily what she envisioned when she dreamed of going into the field growing up. In fact, the bulk of her time in Puerto Rico is spent in a lab. "I always wanted to be a marine biologist, although when I was a kid I didn't know exactly what that meant — I thought it meant playing with dolphins and whales," she says with a laugh.

"But as I got older, and when I went to grad school, I really got interested in fish health and fishery management. The fishing community is such an amazing group of people that provides the citizens of our country with this great, great resource. And the more work I do with fisheries management, the more I appreciate the way that our government handles the management of these wild-caught stocks of fish."

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