Cooperative Research Focuses on Spawning Special Management Zones

(NEWSLETTER - Winter 2019)

When you think about offshore fisheries research, you may envision large research vessels towing sampling gear, or underwater submersibles deep below the surface collecting samples to be taken back to a lab for processing. This type of fisheries-independent research occurs along the Atlantic coast, and it’s expensive and labor-intensive.

Working in partnership with fishermen, state and federal management agencies, and non-government organizations, information can be collected to help fill data gaps. Cooperative research efforts have been underway here in the Southeast specifically to help managers better monitor and understand important spawning areas.

Learn more about the Council’s Managed Areas and Spawning SMZs at

The Council established five Spawning Special Management Zones (SMZs) that became effective on July 31, 2017. To help protect spawning populations, fishing for or possession of species within the snapper grouper management complex is prohibited within these areas. The spawning areas, established in Amendment 36 to the Snapper Grouper Fishery Management Plan, are thought to be important multi-species spawning hot spots. The Spawning SMZs range in size from 5.1 square miles to 2.99 square miles.

Prior to implementation of the Spawning SMZs, commercial fishermen and charter captains were actively involved in cooperative research efforts to collect information useful for establishing the area boundaries off the coasts of the Carolinas and baseline data that can be used to monitor the impact of these protected areas. More recently, on a trip organized by The Pew Charitable Trusts, charter captain Robert Schemmel headed south to the Warsaw Hole Spawning SMZ, southwest of Key West, Florida with scientists from the FWC’s Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (FWRI), Mote Marine Lab, and the Council. We spoke with Captain Schemmel about his experience working as a partner in this cooperative effort.


Captain Robert Schemmel is a professional charter captain in Islamorada, Florida with over 18 years of experience in both commercial and charter fishing.

Q: How did you get involved in this cooperative research project?

A fellow charter captain from the marina is involved in marine conservation and networks with folks from The Pew Charitable Trusts. I’ve been fishing here in the Keys for a while and knew I met the requirements. I’m familiar with Key West but hadn’t fished the Warsaw Hole area before.



Q: What was the purpose of the sampling trip?

Mate, Austin Allende, measures the length of a Warsaw grouper while scientists Matt Bunting (FWRI) and Dr. Chip Collier record data. (Photo credit: Pew Trusts)

There were several people involved in the three day trip, each looking for something a little different to help understand different

aspects of the area. We had a biologist from FWRI collecting water samples and biological samples for age and reproductive analyses, a biologist from Mote Marine Lab experimenting with acoustical monitoring and underwater cameras, and a staff member from the Council. It was a full boat!

Q: What was your role?

I was responsible for captaining the boat and doing my best to catch fish while we were in the Warsaw Hole Spawning SMZ. I had bathymetric maps and was fortunate to have had an opportunity to talk to a local fisherman that used to fish the Hole years ago.  He was willing to share information with me before we started sampling. That was really helpful. I chose the fishing rigs, bait, etc.


Q: How did the trip go? What did you catch during the three days of sampling?

Dr. Jim Locascio prepares to sample a scamp grouper caught in the Warsaw Hole SMZ

Well, to begin with we had excellent weather all three days, and that made things a lot easier. We had some trouble with some of the acoustical monitoring and video sampling

gear. That was frustrating but otherwise things went smoothly. We fished a grid pattern back and forth across the Warsaw Hole SMZ, drifting at different depths for bottom fish.

We caught a good amount of vermilion snapper and yelloweye, all about average size. There were a few red snapper. The area didn’t have many big fish – most were teenagers. But we did catch some warsaw grouper. I think they feed on other fish that congregate there.

Q: What do you think about managed areas after participating in this cooperative research project?

If areas are specific, like Warsaw Hole, I can see protecting it. But more has to be done to designate these areas. They need to be better marked and we need more enforcement. But I don’t agree with designating large areas. These areas move fishermen and concentrate fishing effort. I think reducing aggregate bag limits would help.

A warsaw grouper collected during the research trip is weighed before biological samples, including otolith, gonad, and tissue samples are collected by biologists from FWRI.

Q: Would you participate in a future cooperative research project?

Yes. I think this trip to Warsaw Hole was successful. I enjoyed it very much and would like to do more. It was one of the highlights of my fishing career. I got to work with biologists and fish in an area where others are restricted. There are no more ‘secret spots’ given electronics available now. This is a special area. It should be protected.






Check out this video!

  • Spawning Aggregations – Natural Numbers EP 05

Watch as fish aggregate to spawn and see an example of the importance of protecting spawning concentrations for a single commercially important species.

Dr. Will Heyman has conducted cooperative research projects with a number of fishermen in the South Atlantic over the past few years to gather information about spawning areas.

Dr. Will Heyman, LGL Ecological Research Associates, Inc. and marine scientist specializing in spawning activity and cooperative research.

"Scientists and fishermen both have a lot to bring to the table when it comes to sustainable fisheries management.  Neither has a perfect understanding but these different views can be complementary in effectively framing and addressing fisheries management questions and developing workable solutions.  I have a great deal of respect for fishermen as shown by over 20 years of cooperative research with fishermen in many locations around the world.” 



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