Why "Project Baitfish?"
by Donna McVicar Kazo

Photo of a yellowfin mojarra. by Dr. Tom Kazo

Imagine, for a moment, that you are a small, fast, silvery fish. You live with others just like you— as one, you and your schoolmates fly through the water. At times, you may even fly so fast and so far that you find yourself erupting into the air— an unpleasant experience. But, what if you are being chased by something bigger than you? In the vast ocean, your main defenses are to flee, and to seek safety in numbers.

What if you were able to zip behind a fence? Your hunters would not be able to follow you through the narrow openings: you'd be safe!

That's what's happening every moment in the tidal creeks of mangrove forests all over the world. That's why these creeks are known as "baitfish corridors" and as essential links in the global food web.

The small fish which find shelter behind the long roots of the mangrove trees which line these creeks may not always be tiny. Some of them are youngsters of species of fish that will grow much, much, larger. Some of them are born in the ocean, and as tiny individuals, follow their instincts a long way to these mangrove forests, seeking a safe nursery within the corridors. So, these tidal creeks could also be called "babyfish" corridors.

In the years that I've been exploring these meandering natural channels, there's a sight which always quickens my pulse as it soothes my soul— when my canoe glides around a bend, causing a silvery shower of small fish to explode from the surface, in a maneuver I like to call "skipping school."

Larger fish may also be disturbed by my canoe: the silver king, or tarpon; the sought-after snook; the striped sheepshead; snappers of many varieties; seatrout, bonefish, and red drum, all fisher folks' favorites, all seeking their prey in the mangrove corridors, and all may be found at any size.

Photo of a roseate spoonbill, by David Lamfrom

Birds also inhabit these winding ways as well, using the prop roots of the mangroves as perches for their fishing expeditions. A roseate spoonbill bursts into the air in a flurry of cotton-candy pink, a blue heron disdainfully croaks as he gathers air beneath his great wings. Both were feeding on the small denizens of the mangrove creeks before I so rudely disturbed them. Other residents include ibis, cormorant, osprey, both yellow- and black-crowned night herons, green backed heron, snowy egret, American egret, wood stork; birds we all love to see, large beautiful birds that need a plentiful supply of food to flourish. In a healthy mangrove habitat laced with intertidal corridors, they can find it.

Photo of a great blue heron, by David Lamfrom

It's for these reasons, and many more, that my partner, later husband, Dr. Tom Kazo, and I named our restoration of the hurricane-devastated mangrove habitat of Matheson Hammock/R. Hardy Matheson Preserve "Project Baitfish." For that's a common name of those small, sleek fish, bestowed upon them by people who use them when they drop a line and try their luck. They are also known as "forage fish" because they are what so many other species feed upon. Without a good supply of forage fish, the upper levels of the magnificent food web could collapse. I retrospect, we could have named it "Project Babyfish."

In Florida, it's the red mangrove, Rhizophora mangle, standing tippy-toe on its stilt-like roots, that weaves the fence along the tidal creeks, and offers the most shelter to these safety-seeking fish. If your canoe happens to bang into a prop root as you maneuver around a tight bend of the corridor, a bright scarlet will be revealed beneath the gray bark.

At times, the upper branches of the mangroves weave together and form a tunnel beneath, while the tidal current keeps the lower branches from closing off the passageway. I find mangrove tunnels to be a place of magic and serenity. The mosquitoes, you ask? Their larvae are a favorite food of many small fish. I've spent many happy hours in the depths of Matheson Preserve with nary a skeeter to torment me, so I must pay homage to certain small fish with large appetites for mosquito larvae, the Gambusia, or mosquito fish. Also known to inhabit the mangrove creeks are mangrove rivulus, killifish, mojarra, Gulf menhaden, scaled sardine, Atlantic thread herring, bay anchovy and the aptly-named tidewater silversides.

Photo of a baby flying fish, by Dr. Jaap Vos

As the levels of salinity in the corridors change with the seasons, so do the fish in the mangrove forests. More rain in summer freshens the salt water, while Florida's dry winter season allows oceanic fish to venture further inland as salinity levels rise. Matheson's location on the western shore of Biscayne Bay places it close enough to offshore reefs so that reef fish may use the mangrove corridors for food and shelter. We've captured and released tiny triggerfish and flying fish as well as a yellow mojarra (see photos); the latter's appearance was rewarding as it's a "certified" baitfish!

It surprises me that so few divers are aware of the proven connection between the health of the forest and the offshore reefs they love to explore. It baffles me that people who love to roar out to sea in their fishing boats are unaware of the link between mangroves and their catch of the day. And how many people even give a thought to where fish come from? The ocean is still a vast mystery to most of us. Certainly most people don't realize that the ocean's health is related to what happens on its coastlines. Could they, especially, imagine themselves to be small silvery fish in search of safe haven and food?

To become environmentally aware is a lifelong process. Sometimes projecting our human emotions onto animals is the only way to teach people to make the connection that will save the animal from destruction. Sometimes it's not enough to statistically prove economic benefits to humans. As animals ourselves, we share with creatures furred, feathered, and finned a similar need for a nest, a stronghold.

Photo of a baby triggerfish, by Dr. Tom Kazo.

Tom Kazo possessed an unparalleled gift for empathy and communication with all creatures. He made it his life's work to teach others to see themselves through the eyes of these "critters." He could fully imagine what it would be like to be a fish in need of a friendly mangrove forest but finding only an unwelcoming seawall. Tom and I figured out together that only by expanding our view of life, and becoming less self-centered, human-oriented and just plain greedy will humans be able to save our planet from certain destruction. But after decades of hard-won experiences in over 60 countries, Tom knew it was hard to find a place to start.

Kevin Rapczynski

History has proven that Hurricane Andrew's destruction of Matheson's mangrove habitat was actually a gift. Tom lovingly referred to it as "a university of biodiversity." Project Baitfish's curriculum provided a deeply gratifying education to those volunteers who gave over 10,000 hours of their precious lives to make a difference. Together, we learned that every day is different in a tidal-cleansed habitat. Each sweep of the water could bring us a surprise, many of them unpleasant. We kept our knives handy to cut ropes from crab traps, fishing line, and strings from party balloons which wind around mangrove roots and endanger wildlife. We extracted giant logs from the ooze and cut them underwater if there was no other way. Our muddy, banged-up canoes were barges, tool carriers, fulcrums and everything except pleasure craft. But Matheson's woods rang with our laughter and shouts of triumph. Most of us didn't realize until then that we could do so much just by removing dead wood and debris from a creek.

We learned that a small piece of dead wood in the wrong place could be the key to restoring complete tidal flushing to a corridor. We watched as Tom's methodology worked, that of "helping Mother Nature help herself." We observed shallow, muddy, hot and stagnant waterways grow deep, clear, cool and clean once the blockages were removed by our teams and tidal scouring restored. We were thrilled to see fish immediately discovering the newly-unclogged corridors, exploring their long-lost homes.

We were elated and grateful to learn that there were people in giant NOAA who became devoted to our project. It was the guidance and funding of NOAA's Restoration Center and FishAmerica Foundation, that made Project Baitfish a touchstone of hope for so many. In 2003, NOAA made Tom an Environmental Hero. He cherished that award over any other of the many he received in his all-too-brief but extraordinary life. Project Baitfish is his legacy, and a lesson that lives on to inspire us: that one dedicated and passionate individual can make a difference to both humans and our home planet that is simply beyond measure.

Robert Council, Donna Kazo, and Rose Resendez

Photo Credits— Yellowfin mojarra: Dr. Tom Kazo. Roseate spoonbill, great blue heron: David Lamfrom. Baby flying fish: Dr. Jaap Vos. Baby triggerfish: Dr. Tom Kazo. Volunteers (Kevin Rapczynski, Robert Council, Donna Kazo, Rose Resendez) working on Project Baitfish: Dr. Tom Kazo, Wildlife Research Team.