FAA Faculty Research Featured in the December Issue of Ag Illustrated

Researchers Aim To Make Fish Ponds More Profitable

AT YOUR LEISURE Recreational fish ponds can be money makers for their owners, but management recommendations that two Auburn aquatic ecologists are developing should help make pay-to-fish operations even more profitable.

Some 280,000 recreational fish ponds dot Alabama’s landscape, claiming close to 650,000 acres and providing a significant source of income as part of pay-to-fish operations and fishing resorts located throughout the state. Two Auburn fisheries scientists are in the midst of Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station–funded work aimed at helping pond owners improve the management and profitability of those ponds.

“Given that pond fishing businesses are most often found in some of the most economically challenged parts of Alabama, any support that can help them enhance their fish pond populations and attract more anglers would be significant,” says Rusty Wright, Extension specialist and associate professor in the Department of Fisheries and Allied Aquacultures.

In the project, Wright and departmental colleague Dennis DeVries, professor, are specifically focusing on two management practices commonly used to improve the growth and abundance of largemouth bass and bluegill in recreational ponds. The first is stocking threadfin shad as a supplemental prey fish for largemouth bass; the second is adding pelleted feed for bluegill.

“These enhancement techniques are often used, but it is not consistently clear whether they work or how they act in a pond food web,” Wright says. “This research will help us make better science-based recommendations as to the addition of pellet feeding and the stocking of threadfin shad.”

For largemouth bass, the addition of threadfin shad as a prey species translates into a more abundant, calorically rich and easily caught food source, Wright says; however, shad species can have a negative effect on the abundance and growth of other prey species, such as bluegill, through competition for food.

To offset that competition, or to enhance ponds without shad, pond owners often feed the bluegill with pelleted feeds. Direct feeding of bluegill can improve growth and increase egg production. Plus, feeding in a specific location can lure bluegill to anglers.

In general, however, study of the potential impacts of pellet feeding has only been partially tested scientifically, and often

in laboratory settings. Wright says such research is best carried out in the field, where conditions are the same as those pond managers are going to experience. For their project thus far, he and DeVries have conducted a pond experiment at the E.W. Shell Fisheries Center and have sampled fish from established ponds at the fisheries center as well as some that are privately owned.

“We get a lot of questions about pond management, and our main goal in this research is to truly determine the efficacy of these practices, to refine rate recommendations for stocking and feeding and to understand how the enhancements work,” Wright says. “Our science-based assessment of pond enhancements should help pond managers avoid spending money on overfeeding or excess prey fish additions.


Dr. Bill Deutsch Selected as the Water Conservationist of the Year

Congratulations to Dr. Bill Deutsch as we have just been notified that he was selected as the Water Conservationist of the  Year by the Board of Directors of the Alabama Wildlife Federation.  He will be recognized at the Governor’s Conservation Achievement Awards ceremony on August 5th.

High-Tech Spying on Snapper in Gulf

Sitting on the bottom of the sea 100 feet underwater in the Gulf of Mexico on a cloudy January day, three words come to mind: cold, dark, and lonely.

Think of sticking your face into a bucket of water and ice. Then imagine the water in the bucket is so dark you can scarcely see your hand on the end of your arm. Welcome to Steve Szedlmayer’s laboratory.

Steve Szedlmayer, a professor working out of Auburn University’es Department of Fisheries, readies a receiver to be placed 100 feet beneath the surface of the Gulf of Mexico. The receivers are used to track red snapper fitted with transmitter tags. This device will be installed at a research site 23 miles offshore. (Press-Register/Ben Raines)

The professor, working out of Auburn University’s Department of Fisheries, has been studying red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico since 1990, a 20-year project that has required thousands of scuba dives and allowed Szedlmayer to keep tabs on some individual fish for years. It has also given him unique insight into the ecological impact of the hundreds of artificial reefs off Alabama.

“The basic message is that artificial reefs work. I never believed I’d be saying this 20 years ago. I thought it was a joke. We used to say, ‘Oh my, sinking another ship. Oh what a waste,” Szedlmayer said Thursday. “At this point, I’m convinced that they produce fish, rather than just attract fish.”

That conclusion is inescapable, said Szedlmayer, based on his studies of how long snapper stay on the reefs, what age they arrive at the reefs, what they eat, how quickly they grow and where they concentrate in the Gulf.

The task for Szedlmayer and two volunteer divers — Rusty Hensely and Keith Simmons — last week was to retrieve five expensive underwater receivers and install new ones in their place. The receivers were attached to anchors on the seafloor and suspended with floats so they hung about 15 feet above the bottom. They were designed to record the comings and goings of red snapper fitted with special transmitters on a small artificial reef 23 miles offshore. The

transmitters are surgically implanted in bellies of fish Szedlmayer catches with a rod and reel.

He has been using the array of receivers to track the activities of a group of snapper since August. His data is unique in the scientific world as it provides a 24-hour-a-day log of where individual fish are in relation to their home reef. He can also follow the travels of individual fish from reef to reef by tracking them in real time from the boat with a hydrophone designed to pick up the distinctive pings of the transmitters.

“The precision of the system is incredible. We can track these fish down to their exact position at every moment,” Szedlmayer said. “As far as I know, this system has only been used one other time. I think you will be seeing a lot of other people using it soon.”

Each of the five receivers can record about a million passes by fish. Szedlmayer said it takes about six weeks to fill up the receiver’s memory capacity. That leaves him with roughly 5 million data points to process, a rich trove of scientific information.

But that data comes at a price, namely monthly trips to the seafloor no matter how cold the ocean gets. Most people, scientists included, quit diving in the Gulf in November, when the water temperature drops into the 60s. By January, the temperature hovers around 59 degrees.

The first trick to changing out one of the receivers is finding it. The boat hovers over GPS coordinates associated with a receiver and two divers jump in, swim to the bottom and begin searching. One diver settles to the seafloor and holds the end of a length of rope. Holding onto the other end of the rope, the other diver swims in a circle around the stationary diver and hopes the rope catches on the anchor chain for the receiver. If all goes right, they can usually find the anchored receiver within a few minutes.

But for the diver sitting still and alone on the dark bottom of the Gulf, those can be long and lonesome minutes, with the only sound the gentle burble of exhaled bubbles rising toward the surface.

Szedlmayer has arrays set out on the seafloor in other areas as well, including in shallower water. While he said he can’t draw too many conclusions about the effect of the oil spill on the snapper population at large, he said his research did show that the fish stayed in place on their reefs even as oil drifted over them.

“We’re certainly hoping that we can do an extensive study of whether there was an oil effect or not. One of the aspects we did look at was the age zero fish. We’ve got a long term database on that,” Szedlmayer said, explaining that the young of the year typically settle onto small reefs during the summer.

He said the initial data suggests that there were not a lot of snapper on the reefs that were born this year. Part of the reason, he speculated, was that last year was an extremely productive year for snapper, meaning the reefs were full of 1-year-old snapper.

“The reefs are density dependent. If the house is already full, you can’t let anybody else in, and recruitment was so good last year,” he said. “But, we had cold water upwelling this summer. You had the oil spill. Then you had the extremely high number of age one fish this year.”

In the end, Szedlmayer said, it will take a lot of research to tease apart the effects of those influences. Even then, he predicted, it will be hard to determine what impact the oil spill had.

Click to Watch a Video of Spying on Snapper in Gulf……….

Faculty and Staff Accomplishments

Ag Illustrated
Dr. Elise Irwin, associate professor of fisheries and allied aquacultures (FAA), and FAA Ph.D. student Kathryn Mickett Kennedy recently presented an invited paper at the U.S. Institute for Conflict Resolution on a project they initiated in 2005 with Alabama Power to help stakeholder groups with conflicting environmental priorities collaborate on establishing goals and measures for river management in the R.L. Harris Reservoir.

Kathryn Mickett Kennedy   Research Associate III



Kathryn Mickett Kennedy

 Research Associate III

Fisheries Faculty and Staff

AU Daily

The Auburn University College of Agriculture and the Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station wrapped up 2009 with an annual awards program to
honor faculty and staff. Faculty recognized for excellence in teaching, advising and research included agronomy and soils professor Elizabeth Guertal, who received the 2009 Dean’s Award for Teaching Excellence; animal sciences professor Steve Schmidt, winner of the 2009 Dean’s Award for Advising Excellence; Henry Kinnucan, agricultural economics and rural sociology professor and winner of the 2009 Senior Researcher Award; and agronomy and soils assistant professor Scott McElroy, who took home the 2009 Junior Researcher Award. Five other faculty members — professor Rex Dunham, associate professor Jeff Terhune and research fellow Bill Deutsch, all in fisheries and allied aquacultures, and Nannan Liu and Joseph Kloepper in the entomology and plant pathology department — were presented 2009 Grantsmanship Awards in recognition of their outstanding successes in landing research dollars through extramural grants and contracts. In the staff and administrative/professional employees awards category, 2009 Employee of the Year awards went to Beth Clendenen, an academic program administrator in horticulture; fisheries and allied aquacultures’ Deutsch; Katie Hardy, College of Ag development program coordinator; Michael MacGhar, an agriculture technician at E.V. Smith Research Center; and Scott Snyder, information technology specialist for the college and the Experiment Station.

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