The University of Southern Mississippi – Gulf Coast Research Laboratory: Interview with Jim Franks

The Gulf Coast Research Laboratory (GCRL) is a marine/coastal research and education enterprise located in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, and is a unit of The University of Southern Mississippi. What are some of the projects at GCRL that you are currently working on? I am co-principal investigator on several fisheries projects at GCRL. One of those is a study of Atlantic Tarpon Megalops atlanticus in Mississippi coastal waters and the adjacent northern Gulf of Mexico (Gulf). This work is funded by the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources (MDMR), with additional support provided by the local fly fishing organization (HOSSFLY), and is focused primarily on biological and ecological aspects of juveniles and larvae. Our work to back-track transport pathways of aged leptocephali to presumed offshore northern Gulf spawning locations is an exceptionally interesting study component. This is of tremendous interest since only recently were adult Atlantic Tarpon from northern Gulf waters documented to be spawning capable. Additionally, satellite (PSAT) tagging of adults off Mississippi is scheduled for late summer 2015 in an effort to examine seasonal movements, habitat preferences, and aspects of regional winter residency. Another project involves an investigation of life history aspects of Yellowfin Tuna Thunnus albacares in the northern Gulf of Mexico. This research is funded by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF). GCRL collaborators (co-PIs) on the project are Eric Saillant (genetic stock structure of Gulf Yellowfin Tuna and connectivity with other regional stocks within the Atlantic Basin) and Nancy Brown-Peterson (reproductive biology). My role is overseeing the feeding ecology component of the study and some of the field sampling efforts. Jay Rooker, professor with Texas A and M University at Galveston, is also a project co-PI assessing “natural” tags to determine the nursery origin and stock structure of Yellowfin Tuna. Yellowfin Tuna examined in the study are sampled from the recreational fishery at dock locations along the northern Gulf, primarily Venice, Louisiana, and Biloxi, Mississippi. Other aspects of the project being conducted by our LDWF colleague Brett Falterman (project manager) and his research team include satellite and acoustic tagging. The Yellowfin Tuna study represents the first large-scale biological investigation of this species in the region. Yellowfin Tuna support valuable commercial and recreational fisheries in the Gulf, and study results will inform management of the species. Other research involves the use of acoustic telemetry to better understand the associations of Spotted Seatrout Cynoscion nebulosus, juvenile snapper and grouper, and juvenile sharks with inshore artificial reef habitats as well as their seasonal use of coastal embayments as critical habitat. This work (funded primarily by the MDMR) was initiated several years ago by the GCRL Center for Fisheries Research and Development (CFRD) team, with an ultimate goal of vastly expanding our fisheries acoustic research capabilities via establishment of larger arrays of “listening stations” throughout the Mississippi Sound estuary. This work, coupled with our long-term collaborative research with MDMR on important fisheries in Mississippi coastal waters, greatly expands our knowledge of the ecology of those important finfish populations. These studies are examples of CFRD research that provides support for GCRL–Department of Coastal Sciences graduate students, engaging them in field and laboratory activities, and offering unparalleled learning opportunities and hands-on experience. Pelagic sargassum (a surface drifting brown alga; two species complex) as critical fish habitat is a GCRL focus of considerable interest. GCRL’s scientists have been studying sargassum/fish associations for over a decade, with more recent sargassum research in the northern Gulf being conducted by Frank Hernandez of USM’s Department of Coastal Sciences and his great team. Moving beyond the Gulf, CFRD oceanographer Don Johnson and I have taken particular interest in an astounding, emerging pelagic sargassum issue in the Caribbean. Since 2011, massive quantities have been washing into bays and onto shorelines of Caribbean countries, negatively impacting ecological services, as well as fishers’ livelihoods, tourism, and local community life. Without question, a regional issue of considerable consequence. We have been joined by naval oceanographer collaborator D.S. Ko in examining possible underlying mechanisms driving this phenomenon. Development of a predictive model having utility in the development of response plans and adaptive strategies is a goal of ours. Can you tell us about your involvement in GCRL-CFRD shark studies? Well, I am fortunate indeed to be involved in some capacity in a couple of shark research projects with Jill Hendon, GCRL-CFRD shark biologist and Shark Research Program team leader. The Program conducts population monitoring/assessment surveys of Gulf shark species as well as studies on their biology and ecology. Use of acoustic telemetry and satellite tag technologies is providing exceptional insight into seasonal behavior, habitat use, and movements of coastal and large pelagic sharks. Recently, Andy Evans (COA) joined forces with the CFRD to expand the Shark Research Program by providing expertise in molecular endocrinology and physiology. Whale Sharks Rhincodon typus in the Gulf of Mexico are of paramount interest to the shark team, particularly the large aggregations that occur with some regularity at a few unique locations many miles off coastal Louisiana. These tend to be feeding aggregations focused, in great part, on consumption of eggs from spawning fishes that gather over bottom features (domes and the banks). The Whale Sharks (most appear to be juveniles) may well time their occurrences at such features to coincide with the spawning events. Satellite tagging Whale Sharks at those locations and among those aggregations is a viable strategy for data acquisition. Among key personnel collaborating with GCRL in various components of the research are LDWF scientists Brett Falterman and Jennifer McKinney, NOAA research colleague Eric Hoffmayer, spotter pilot Bonnie Schumaker, and her team of keen-eyed observers, critically important research sponsors and others. What makes GCRL fisheries research stand out from other fisheries programs? Since the early days of its founding in 1947, the GCRL has placed strong emphasis on fisheries and providing scientific support for resource management, both within the State of MissisCFRD and COA covers a wide diversity of coastal and offshore fishes and invertebrates and their habitats. In particular, GCRL’s multi-decade historic data sets and long-term routine monitoring and sampling in local coastal waters provide for greater understanding of Mississippi fishery species and their ecology. Working with user groups, locally and region-wide, who rely on coastal and marine fisheries is also a critically important and effective component of the GCRL’s research and outreach agenda. The CFRD, under the directorship of Read Hendon, is funded primarily by grants and contracts and employs a team of researchers and technical staff who engage in collaborative research with COA faculty and graduate students. This collaboration not only builds capacity and strengthens overall GCRL research capabilities but also provides unique training opportunities for resident graduate students and visiting undergraduate interns. GCRL fisheries programs are supported by a fleet of research vessels that vary in size from large offshore platforms to coastal center consoles. I first came to GCRL in 1963 as an undergraduate enrolled in the Summer Field Program. That singular experience was a real eye-opener for me and actually changed my life. The following summer I enrolled in other GCRL summer classes, followed by a third summer working as a TA in the marine ichthyology class (the greatest experience ever). That was followed by graduate studies at the University of Mississippi, with my graduate fisheries research conducted at GCRL. So, it has been my extremely good fortune to be associated with the lab in various capacities since that time. The lab is kind of my home you might say. In fact, I’m often told I should just move into my office and live there! Since its formation, the GCRL has held a leadership role in the marine sciences with a dedicated focus on research, education, and outreach. Our incorporation into the University of Southern Mississippi in the late 1980’s further strengthened our ability to provide students with exceptional academic and handson experiences through the COA, CFRD, Thad Cochran Marine Aquaculture Center, and Marine Education Center. Collaborations among these four principal units serve to define the GCRL as a leading marine science institution. I’ve seen this very special place “evolve” through time under inspired leadership while surviving numerous challenges, including Hurricanes Camille (1969) and Katrina (2005). Such resilience is representative of the strength of the institution as it continues its growth toward providing new and exciting opportunities in research and education, certainly in the discipline of fisheries science, all the while making significant contributions to a greater understanding of the marine environment and its living resources.