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January 2019    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 45, No. 1   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Big Trouble at Blue Heron Bridge

an aquarium is accused of plundering its signature marine life

from the January, 2019 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Florida's diving community is fighting for better protection of Blue Heron Bridge, a popular macrolife dive site in the town of Riviera Beach. It's an iconic place because underwater enthusiasts have spotted more than 400 species of fish in its waters since 1993, according to the Reef Environmental Education Foundation. Many of them, such as the polka-dotted batfish, hairy blennies and longsnout seahorses, are incredibly rare to see. So, tempers flared high after reports that Moody Gardens, an aquarium and tourist attraction in Galveston, Texas, sent a group of four professional divers to the Bridge with collecting devices, a truck full of holding tanks, and legal permits to collect 4,300 animals during a week in early October.

There have been conflicting reports as to the scale of the fish collecting done there, but outrage by divers went so viral on social media that Greg Whittaker, Moody Gardens' animal husbandry manager, went on Facebook with a video to defend the aquarium's position, saying they were only targeting a dozen species of blennies and gobies. Jim Abernethy of Jim Abernethy Scuba Adventures in Lake Park, a town just north of Riviera Beach, posted his own Facebook video to trash Whittaker's response, saying Moody Garden's permit was for 86 species. He says Whittaker failed to mention the wrasses, surgeonfish, stingrays, angelfish, porkfish, parrotfish, octopus, jawfish, hogfish, hamlets, doctorfish, goatfish, chromis and the butterflyfish. Moody Gardens' divers collected 50 each of 86 species, equal to the 4,300 animals they got permits to collect.

Although Whittaker says Moody Gardens' fish collecting was done in the name of research and in collaboration with Texas A&M University, Abernethy alleges that someone from the university called him to say they had nothing to do with this tropical fish collecting, he had personally counted the fish collected, and there were only 36. (It's rumored that the collectors were three A&M graduate students doing the dives to earn some extra cash.)

Abernethy tells us that he didn't believe Whittaker after hearing an officer from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) say at least 100 animals were taken, and that a dive instructor who was on site videotaping the collecting mission looked in one of the tanks and saw at least 200. (He didn't get to see into the seven-footround tank at the back of the truck.)

Whittaker says the divers went to three different dive sites, but Abernethy disputes that, saying two of the dive site names listed on the permits start with "Blue Heron Bridge." "Is it the policy of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums to put professional tropical fish collectors in at one location to remove as many fishes as they can?" Abernethy asks.

Judging by the number of scuba tanks filled at a local dive shop for the three fish collectors, and the shallow depth of the site, Abernethy did the math and challenges Whitaker's claim to the number of fishes collected -- it would have meant they only caught one fish every hour. Unlikely. The collectors had to drive 110 miles every day to put the captured fish in a large enough tank, indicating there were a lot more.

Abernethy also believes the FWC officers went back to the fish collectors' hotel room, where they might have encountered fish illegally caught, and forced them to release the fish back into the sea.

Meanwhile, Whittaker is unrepentant, saying on the Facebook video that the claims by angry divers are far from reality, and repeating Moody Gardens would not take fish from a sensitive ecosystem -- even though they had applied for a permit to take 4,300 specimens. He says his staff felt threatened by the conservation advocates who were there at the time, and that's why they released some fish back into the water. He talks of "bigger picture goals."

Abernethy scoffs at that, saying, "Every conservationist knows it is better to leave animals in their natural habitat than to take them and place them in a restricted container." He disputes Whittaker's claim that Moody Gardens was removing them from water rich in harmful pathogens, calling it "comical."

Jenny Wuenschel (Hollywood, FL), who has done over 200 dives at Blue Heron Bridge, read with shock and horror about the "atrocities." "Divers from around the globe come to BHB to photograph the concentration of unique animals in a small area," she says. "Now, because of lack of ethics and very poor collection practices, the animals are gone."

Blue Heron Bridge sits within Phil Foster Park, which is owned by Palm Beach County. Currently, the county prohibits anyone from collecting fish from the bridge, but before these recent complaints, FWC was handing out permits to groups wanting to gather sea life for educational purposes. They have now put that program on hold.

But a few months before the Texas divers came to town, a few local divers had already banded together to petition the FWC to make the dive site a no-take for tropical marine species. They spoke at an FWC public meeting in June, and the commissioners agreed to discuss the topic sometime in 2019. The group was pretty upset when they read diver Tom Poff's Facebook post on October 5, telling how his group of divers came across four men with professional-grade collecting devices including sheet net, and listing many species by then missing. They posted it on their own Facebook page, the Blue Heron Bridge Dive Club.

"Talk about the post going viral," says Joanie Tomlin, a member of that group. "It reached almost 90,000 people and 673 shares on our page alone. God only knows how far it went, but Trip Advisor, Yelp, Moody, Texas A&M's Facebook pages, FWC, all commented on it. Really just about anywhere folks could write reviews, they did."

Tomlin is now an administrator for a new Facebook page titled Blue Heron Bridge Preservation Initiative, with more than 600 members who are passionate about keeping Blue Heron Bridge a collection-free dive spot. She says the Facebook posts have turned into more concrete action.

That Moody event was the catalyst that pushed the topic up the agenda for the FWC's December 12 meeting. "The public backlash was enough so that FWC may even vote at its upcoming meeting to permanently ban collecting, both recreational and commercial. So, in my opinion it was a winwin. It wasn't as bad as people made it sound, but it finally got the results we have been hoping for over decades."

Even DEMA got involved. CEO Tom Ingram, together with the organization's legislative advocate, Bob Harris, attended FWC's December 12 meeting in St. Augustine to add support and state its stance against fish collecting at Blue Heron Bridge.

The result: The FWC commission made changes to the draft proposal that, subject to approval at its February meeting, will "prohibit the collection of marine life fishery species (species collected for and managed for the tropical aquarium trade) within the [marine] park and surrounding waters." They also approved expanding the previously proposed area to include additional waters north of Phil Foster Park. Score one for the passionate fans of Blue Heron Bridge and its marine life.

What's your view regarding fish collecting for aquariums? We'd like to hear from you. Write to, not forgetting to tell your town and state.

-- John Bantin

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