A decade ago, Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission researcher and doctorial candidate Kathy Guindon was under the gun. She had just spent two years and more than $200,000 of taxpayer money on an abortive Boca Grande Pass tarpon mortality study that had been hurriedly reshuffled and morphed into a hook placement project that focused on live-baiting, jigging and, of course, snagging.
In a recent letter to FWC Chairman Kenneth Wright, Dr. Justin R. Grubich – one of the world’s leading authorities on tarpon feeding habits – implodes the myth Guindon’s hook placement “study” created when it was rushed into print a decade ago. A copy of Grubich’s letter has been obtained by Save The Tarpon Inc. In his letter, the associate director of biodiversity at Chicago’s respected Field Museum provides a revealing glimpse into how $200,000 worth of research was warped into $200,000 worth of junk science. And how the jig went from an obvious snagging device to a legitimate fishing lure as a result of a brief 30 minute phone call.
In 2004, Guidon (her emails would later become public) understood the numbers she had collected weren’t going the way the jig community wanted. The data showed a significant difference between the two methods of fishing. The data Guindon had gathered in the Pass clearly showed the live bait technique employed by Boca Grande’s traditional tarpon guides wasn’t foul-hooking fish. The same data made it equally clear the jig was. Guindon’s jig angler “friends,” who were leaked the study’s unpublished results in advance, weren’t very happy. And when the media went after Guindon’s raw data, they panicked.
Emails later obtained and published by a local newspaper showed the young doctorial candidate was being bombarded with pleas from jig guides begging her to find a way to “massage” the data to bring the foul-hooking numbers under the threshold the FWC commissioners had previously said would trigger a finding that the jig was a snagging device. Guindon couldn’t change the data. It had already been made public. But she could change the message the data was sending.
Enter Dr. Grubich. “I was contacted by the FWC (Guindon) sometime around 2003-4 because of my 2001 research publication regarding the strike kinematics and jaw functional morphology of juvenile tarpon,” he writes in his letter to the FWC chairman. Grubich was a recognized expert. He was the authority. He was the scientist anyone researching tarpon feeding habits would want to undertake a thoughtful and analytical “peer review” of their findings. It’s a process that can take weeks, if not months, to do right. Guindon, under pressure to “publish or perish,” gave Dr. Grubich a half hour. Over the phone.
“My recollection of that phone call was approximately a 30 minute discussion where I was briefly informed of the Boca Grande jigging issue and asked a series of questions of how tarpon jaws work during the strike and whether it’s possible these jig’s hook placement in the clipper could be the result of feeding behavior.”
Possible? To his credit, Dr. Grubich answered the question honestly. Possible, yes. Anything’s possible. That’s pretty much all Guindon needed, or wanted, to hear. It was “possible” the foul-hooking observed with the jig, but not with live bait methods, was the result of normal “feeding behavior.” The jig, her study concluded, wasn’t really snagging those snagged tarpon. Dr. Grubich said so.
Since its hasty publication, the study and Dr. Grubich’s phoned-in observations have been repeatedly offered up as “proof” by jig anglers and the PTTS that the jig doesn’t, as its critics contend, snag tarpon. (The hits just keep on coming. The Friday, May 17 edition of the Boca Beacon reports that University of South Florida tarpon expert Dr. Phil Motta has said the information he gave to the FWC was also improperly and incorrectly used in the study.)
Fast forward to May, 2013. Dr. Grubich is contacted by author Randy White and noted tarpon angler and artist Bill Bishop. Dr. Grubich, who had never reviewed the data Guindon collected and whose opinion was cherry-picked from what he was told during a rushed phone call, was urged by White and Bishop to take a closer look at the study. He did.
First, about that quickie phone call that formed the basis for the study’s eventual conclusions: “At no point in time was any background material of the break-away jig issue, the tarpon fishery at Boca Grande Pass, or the initial 2002-2003 results of the catch and release mortality study ever provided to me before or after my interview.”
But now he’s seen the data. He’s been given the time to study it. And a decade after the fact, he’s formed an opinion. A real opinion. One based on his training, his experience and his expertise. His conclusion leaves little room for debate. The jig, he says, is snagging tarpon.
“The evidence,” Dr. Grubich writes, “indicates break-away jigs result in higher foul hooking percentages.” And, “the results show that break-away jigs still have significantly greater foul hook placement in other parts of the tarpon compared to live bait.” What percentage of foul hooking did the study actually uncover? Was it 10 percent? Maybe 15 percent? Dr. Grubich’s examination of the data puts the number well above what the FWC once said was acceptable. “The percentage of foul hooking associated with break-away jigs would be 27 percent for the 2003 results.”
The jig anglers and the PTTS have spent the last 10 years demanding science. Read Dr. Grubich’s letter to the FWC chairman. It’s called science.