The St. Joseph Bay Buffer Preserve is hopping.
Each year, the Buffer Preserve plays home to a handful of researchers from all over the U.S. who live on-site while conducting research in the area.
One of the men currently calling the Buffer Preserve home is Andrew Marbury, a graduate research assistant currently working toward his Master’s degree in Fisheries Science at the University of Georgia.
Marbury arrived at the Preserve in May and will stay through August as he studies sturgeon in the Brothers and Apalachicola Rivers.
While doing his undergraduate two years ago, Marbury studied fish along the Georgia coast and when he reached grad school a professor told him about a grant written that would allow a student to study sturgeon along the Florida coast.
“The sturgeon is a cool, awesome fish and I love field work,” said Marbury. “Needless to say, I jumped at the opportunity.”
Marbury spent May through August of 2013 beginning his research at the Buffer Preserve, but his progress was hampered by constant rains, forcing a return trip.
Not that he was broken up about it.
This year, Marbury’s goal is to track juvenile sturgeon, a fish that live in the salt waters of the Gulf part of the year before moving to freshwater rivers in February to spawn. Sturgeon is considered federally endangered and Marbury aims to track where they go in the river system, what habitats they prefer, as well as trying to estimate the number of juvenile sturgeon currently in the river system.
While there have been numerous studies conducted on adult and sub-adult sturgeon, very little research is available on juveniles, something Marbury means to rectify.
“I came down here to fill in that gap with information,” said Marbury.
By understanding where sturgeon spawn and thrive, Marbury hopes that eventually his research can take them off the endangered species list.
Currently, Marbury and his technician assistant Zach Cummins, a sophomore at Georgia Southern College, spend five days a week on the river, launching from Howard Creek.
Each day they cast 4-6 gill nets. These nets, designed to catch only smaller fish, are 50 meters long and anchor at the bottom of the river. Standing 10 feet tall, the juvenile sturgeon swim in, but they don’t swim out.
Once the nets are recovered, each fish is tagged with a 15-digit number and electronic chip.
The chip allows Marbury to track their location via software. Marbury anchored numerous acoustic receivers at the bottom of the river which ping a signal every 90 seconds. If a sturgeon with a chip is nearby, they will show up within the software.
He’ll continue getting up-to-date information even when he returns to Georgia. If Marbury catches a fish that’s already been tagged, the number tells him where it was caught previously, giving him further insight into the sturgeon’s travel habits.
The data is collected and catalogued and will be analyzed at the end of the season.
Marbury said that Gulf County is the best area in the country for studying Gulf sturgeon and has been thrilled to have the opportunity.
“The sturgeon congregate here and it’s a prime time to sample those fish,” said Marbury. “By living here while studying, I’ve been able to learn about the area and get a feel for the entire ecosystem.”
What fascinates Marbury most about the species is that they’re prehistoric, having been on Earth for more than 220 million years.
In the 1900s, sturgeon numbers dropped as they were overfished for caviar while water pollution, dredging and damming also complicated their spawning process, blocking access to the many areas where sturgeon would typically lay their eggs.
Feeding mainly on invertebrates on the bottom of the ocean, sturgeon will gorge themselves while in the Gulf waters and barely eat once it’s time to spawn. The fish can grow up to eight feet in length and weigh more than 200 pounds.
“They’re different than any other fish,” said Marbury. “They’re very boney, very sharp, and they’ve been around forever.”
Marbury believes that the sturgeon’s naturally sharp fins and lack of predation is the only thing to keep it from becoming endangered altogether.
So what do Marbury and Cummins do when they aren’t fishing for research purposes?
They fish recreationally, of course.
Cummins, whose brother studies with Marbury, grew up on the water and was recruited to help Marbury drive the boat, mend the nets and help with prep work.
“It’s hard work,” said Cummins. “But what’s better than fishing all summer for a job?”