He was, as he said, “doomed from the start” to spend his career studying marine life.
Why doomed, you may ask? He explained that while many people want to be a marine biologist, it isn’t as glamorous as it is portrayed on television shows.
“There are not a lot of jobs in this field, and you don’t make a lot of money,” he said. “It certainly can be a great profession, but a lot of people don’t know what the definition means. A lot of people watch the Discovery Channel, or, back in my time, Jacques Costeau. That isn’t really what marine science is all about. That’s going out and doing cool stuff, but doesn’t have much to do with actual science.”
Marine biology, Aaron said, is all about reading, doing background research, and spending most of your time sitting at a desk. Searching Wikipedia doesn’t count. It has to be cold, hard, documented facts that make up a study. It is hours spent pouring over scientific papers. Not scuba diving in the deep and spending your days on a boat in the sun. That may be some of it, but it sure isn’t most of it, he said.
“You have to understand the scientific method to design a study,” he explained further. “For example, if you want to learn about tarpon you have to start with questions you want to address, not just tag some tarpon. Then you have to be able to retrieve the data, you have to know how to analyze those statistics. Then you have to have enough knowledge to be able to reach some viable conclusions. Also, the greatest lack of realization people have is that if you can’t write well you won’t be able to publish the results of your studies. On top of all that, if all you do is go to college for a few years you’re only going to be at a technician’s level. The more education you have, the more you can do. If you want to organize, conduct and lead research, you need a higher degree.
“It certainly isn’t all the glory that you see on TV. In this job, there are no shortcuts.”
The biologist with Mote Marine Laboratory’s Charlotte Harbor office is also the director of Bonefish & Tarpon Trust. That means he spends a lot of time in Boca Grande, and has grown to love it.
He grew up in Baltimore, near the Chesapeake Bay. As a child the Bay was one of his favorite places. He also fished and camped on the banks of the nearby lakes and streams. Being on the water is in his blood; it always has been.
“I started fishing when I was 4 or 5,” he said. “I did a lot of it throughout the first 18 years of my life, and it kept me out of trouble. I played soccer, lacrosse and baseball in school as well, but I did a whole lot of fishing. The first fish I ever caught was a bluegill, but the first big fish I caught was a six-pound bullhead catfish. It almost pulled me into the water.”
Aaron’s mother was a kindergarten teacher, his father was a statistician for the state. They still reside in Maryland, as does his only sister.
Aaron left Maryland after high school to attend Guilford College in North Carolina. When the school raised tuition and his financial aid was cut off, he moved back to Maryland and went to St. Mary’s College.
“It was nice there, as it was right on the water,” he said. “They had a Liberal Arts curriculum, and I majored in biology. After I got my bachelor’s degree I spent four years working in California, then went back to the east coast to go to William and Mary College in Virginia. I got my master’s degree there, then worked in the Virgin Islands for several years as a fish biologist for the local department of natural resources. It was a great place to be, but not a great place to do. So I came back again to the States.”
Aaron then went back to school, attending the University of Massachusetts where he got his PhD.
As luck would have it, he found a job in Florida, working for a scientific research facility called Mote Marine Laboratory. While their Sarasota branch had been open for many years by that time, they were just opening an office on Pine Island to study Charlotte Harbor. That was in 2001, and Aaron has been there ever since. He and his wife, Maria, live on Pine Island as well.
“If I were to cut down a couple of mangrove islands I could see Boca Grande from there,” he laughed. “But we don’t want to do that. It’s an hour and a half drive from Pine Island to Boca Grande, and a 20-minute ride by boat.”
Aaron feels that the broad scope of his research, from his travels in California and the Virgin Islands to his studies in Maryland, has left him with a bigger picture of many different fisheries. One of the commonalities he has found is a loss or degradation of habitat.
“Growing up in Baltimore near the Bay, I was watching the water quality go down the tubes as far as pollution and coastal development,” he said. “I have seen some of that occurring here, as well. In Sarasota and Tampa, for instance, all the shorelines are sea wall. Here, someone had the foresight to leave the mangrove shorelines. If you don’t have habitat, you don’t have much in the way of a fishery. If you lose mangrove creeks and wetlands, which is where juvenile fish get started, you lose it all.”
Aaron explained that when he began with Mote Marine, Charlotte Harbor was much overlooked when it came to research. While Tampa waters and more largely-populated areas had been well researched, the treasures that our waters hold were scarcely acknowledged. For instance, Aaron said, historical accounts say that Cuban fishermen used to come to Charlotte Harbor in the winter to harvest schools of mullet.
“That’s a long way to travel to get some fish,” he said. “At one point, if memory serves, back in the commercial fishing days this harbor’s harvest was bigger than the whole state’s combined.”
The work Aaron is doing is providing answers to try to understand how Charlotte Harbor fish desperately need natural habitats, and documenting changes in the harbor.
“One of the most important things to realize is that the changes going on in Charlotte Harbor are very similar to changes that have already occurred elsewhere,” he said. “A lot can be learned from things learned elsewhere. From an environmental perspective, people need to get involved when things are good. Many times they don’t act until the horse is well out of the barn.”
Aaron has been a vital part of the tarpon-tagging research taking place in Charlotte Harbor, and in a new project at Wildflower Preserve. While adult tarpon and other fish live in the harbor, the juveniles of the species live in the mangrove backwaters.
Wildflower is a perfect example of that. Between satellite tagging in the harbor and the Pass, and tagging with volunteers and other scientists at Wildflower, he is experiencing a whole lot of Florida ecology lately.
Now he hopes to start a new kind of tagging, a type that will allow him to gather more information on the habits of our local fish in the harbor. It’s called accoustic tagging, and it might provide more statistics on how interaction with sharks and fishing pressure affect the fish.
“We’re very interested in the tarpon and snook here, we’re trying to figure out what makes them tick,” Aaron said. “We can then put that information into the discussion of management and conservation concerning Charlotte Harbor, so people can make informed decisions. Habitat findings concerning those fish help other species of fish in the area as well. The more you know more about one species, you can apply it to other species as well.”
Aaron’s hope for the future is that the more information he can provide about our area’s waters and the creatures within, the more positive influence he can have on conservation efforts. Healthy fisheries for the future, he said, mean a lot to the people who live, work and play here and will continue to be important for future generations as well.View More images >>
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