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Monday, September 25, 2023

UF team builds concrete reefs to study overfished grouper

Whether you like your grouper blackened or baked, a UF associate professor has been working on saving the fish favorite for the past 17 years, according to a UF press release.

Bill Lindberg, a UF associate professor, and his team of researchers and students have been on a quest to understand how artificial reefs can increase a dwindling population of gag grouper, a popular game and food fish.

The team has been doing this by building a 26-mile span of artificial reefs using 1,350 tons of concrete tubing in the Gulf of Mexico. The reefs are located about 20 miles off shore between the coasts of Levy and Dixie counties.

It has studied the reef's impact on the grouper, according to the release.

Their work has recently been extended with additional funding of ,1 million.

Lindberg said gag grouper is in the midst of a severe overfishing crisis.

The release stated that in 2004, scientists confirmed that grouper fishing on the west coast of Florida has increased by almost four times in the past 20 years, making Lindberg's efforts even more timely and urgent.

After Lindberg's team put the reefs in place, individual fish were tagged so their movements could be monitored and behaviors scrutinized.

Lindberg said he and his researchers concluded that smaller reefs were highly beneficial to the grouper.

In smaller reefs, there are fewer fish and less competition for food, which leads to bigger and healthier fish.

Healthier fish, Lindberg said, produce more eggs and potentially more offspring.

"Smaller, widely-distributed reefs give you more bang for your buck," Lindberg said. "Fish like densely-populated areas, but grow faster and are less likely to be fished in small reefs."

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Lindberg said the artificial reefs are located halfway between inshore sea grass beds, where young grouper mature, and the deep gulf waters, where they eventually go to reproduce.

Lindberg calls this in-between area "the bottleneck."

The bottleneck is where the population suffers its heaviest losses to predators and faces heavy competition for resources. By placing the reefs there, he gives grouper a place to hide and grow before reproducing, he said.

The concrete reefs mimic the dimension and structure of limestone outcroppings, stone reefs that are native to the area.

Lindberg said the incoming money would fund a second and bigger reef system that's already in the planning stages, called the Steinhatchee Fisheries Management Area.

This reef will not be primarily for research, but will act as a working shelter for the grouper.

The project has been a partnership between UF's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences and several environmental organizations, including the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

In the release, Jon Dodrill, an environmental administrator from the commission, said Lindberg's work constitutes, "one of the largest artificial reef projects that's been undertaken."

Lindberg said the artificial reefs are powerful when it comes to replenishing the shrinking grouper population.

The reefs won't solve the overfishing problem, he said.

"There is a scientific consensus that artificial reefs cannot completely offset the fishing pressure," Lindberg said. "They are not an alternative to properly managing the fishing effort, but just one tool in the toolbox."

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