Federal Gov’t Spends $728K to Study Sex-Changing Fish

By Melanie Arter | October 6, 2014 | 3:56 PM EDT

This undated file photo from Oregon State University shows a school of yellow tang off the coast of Hawaii. (AP Photo/Oregon State University, Bill Walsh,File)

(CNSNews.com) – The National Science Foundation has awarded a total of $727,798 in federal funds for a three-year study on the impacts of size-selective mortality on sex-changing fish.

“Many marine fish species change sex during their lifetimes, and many of them are targets of commercial and recreational fishing,” the grant said. “The timing of sex change in these animals is often related to body size, so populations typically consist of many small fish of the initial sex (usually female) and few large fish of the other sex (usually male).”

According to the grant, smaller fish face greater mortality risk from predators, but fishermen usually seek larger fish.

“Thus, fishing that targets larger individuals may skew sex ratios, removing enough of the larger sex to hinder reproduction. However, the extent to which size-selective mortality affects sex-changing fishes is poorly understood,” it said.

“The results will advance our knowledge of the susceptibility and resilience of sex-changing organisms to different types of size-selective mortality and will reveal how sex-changing species can recover after size-selection ceases, as in populations within marine reserves where fishing is suddenly prohibited,” it added.

The project will involve research support from graduate students and undergraduates from California State University Northridge, Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, and University of North Carolina Wilmington.

Federal money has been awarded to three different sponsors: $210,326 to UNC; $310,220 to the University Corporation, Northridge, and $207,252 to San Jose State University Foundation.

In an e-mailed response to CNSNews.com’s inquiry as to why this is an effective use of taxpayer funds, J. Wilson White, principal investigator for the grant given to UNC, said grants from the NSF “are awarded based on both their intellectual merit (i.e., how they will advance scientific knowledge in a field) and their broader impacts for society and the national interest.”

“Our research focuses on sex-changing fishes, because many commercially fished species (e.g., groupers) change sex (often from female to male) over the course of their lives.  However, the scientific understanding of how fishing affects fish populations does not typically account for that sex change, which could be a major oversight. As such, our grant has the following broader impacts, which we described in our grant proposal:

(1) This work will inform fisheries management because current management policies generally do not differ for sex changing and non-sex changing species. This includes management of fishes in no-take marine protected areas, which is a particular focus of the work we proposed.

(2) Computer model code we develop for this project will be made publicly available, allowing fisheries managers to evaluate different fishing scenarios for sex-changing species.

(3) Scientific training of three graduate students and several undergraduate students.  All three universities involved in this grant are so-called RUIs (research institutions that primarily serve undergraduate students), so this project will provide a conduit for undergraduates, particularly from underrepresented groups, to participate in research."

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