Some Florida residents took Moody Gardens to task over a research team from the nonprofit organization that was gathering marine species from a popular dive spot near Blue Heron Bridge.
The team drew fire from divers who had seen researchers removing species from the water, Moody Gardens said.
The team didn’t break any laws and worked under a valid permit, said Carol Lyn Parish, spokeswoman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s southern region. The agency didn’t issue any citations, she said.
Commission agents were dispatched to the site, which is on Florida’s east coast just north of Palm Beach, Friday and Saturday, after confrontation between local divers and the research team, said Greg Whittaker, Moody Gardens’ animal husbandry manager.
The Moody Gardens team collected 50 fish and 12 invertebrates over a seven-day period, CEO John Zendt said in a statement issued Monday.
The species were collected as part of a project to breed a type of fish called blenny, Whittaker said.
“The reason that we’re supportive of this project is it hits so many initiatives within the bigger aquarium community,” Whittaker said. “At some point, we may become known as the place where people can go to get blennies.”
Moody Gardens operates a 1.5-million-gallon aquarium at its Galveston complex, according to the organization’s website.
While one member of the team is a student at Texas A&M University at Galveston, he works part-time at Moody Gardens and the university was not directly associated with the expedition, Whittaker said.
Only two species were collected under the auspices of the university, he said.
Conservation advocates in Florida, however, accuse the team of concentrating collections too heavily in waters near Blue Heron Bridge.
“I don’t believe Moody Gardens at all,” Jim Abernethy, of Jim Abernethy’s Scuba Adventures, said. “I would venture to say that they probably caught thousands.”
The small bay at Blue Heron Bridge is not protected by special regulations, although advocates have long pushed for them, diver Christopher Durst said.
“There has been a push from a lot of people in the area to make Blue Heron Bridge a protected, non-collection area,” Durst said. “It was gaining steam as recently as July.”
A change.org petition calling for the banning of fish collection at Blue Heron Bridge, which Abernethy started over the weekend, had gained more than 4,500 of the goal 5,000 signatures by 4 p.m. Wednesday.
Two-thirds of the species collected came from the Blue Heron Bridge and the Blue Heron Snorkel Trail, Whittaker said. The team collected the other third from the Fort Pierce Marina Dock, he said.
The state wildlife commission issued Moody Gardens the collection permit on Sept. 27, officials said.
The permit allowed collection of more than 90 species in the areas of Broward, Monroe, Palm Beach and St. Lucie counties.
The Florida commission modified the permit Saturday to restrict activity in the “immediate vicinity” of Blue Heron Bridge and require collection across multiple sites, so no site would be “disproportionately impacted.”
Parish could not verify the exact reason for the modifications, a decision made at the state office in Tallahassee, which was closed this week because of Hurricane Michael, she said.
One specimen died during transport but all others are in quarantine at Moody Gardens, Whittaker said.