Pioneers in Marine and Fisheries Research at the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory
Jim FranksApril 17, 2012
This is the second contribution in our series of “Pioneers in Marine and Fisheries Research at the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory.” The first article was on Tom McIlwain, longtime GCRL scientist and administrator. The present article profiles James S. (Jim) Franks, Senior Research Scientist in the Center for Fisheries Research and Development at GCRL. The background for this narrative came mainly from discussions a group of GCRL scientists had with Jim over the course of several months. That group included McIlwain (former GCRL Director and Professor Emeritus), Jeff Lotz (Interim Director and Professor), Harriet Perry (former Director of the Center for Fisheries Research and Development), Read Hendon (Director of the Center for Fisheries Research and Development), Chris Snyder (Director of the Marine Education Center) and William Hawkins (former GCRL Director and Professor Emeritus).
Jim Franks is possibly the most recognized and recognizable GCRL scientist. The still-practicing biologist has been the public face of GCRL at local fishing tournaments for decades and is frequently asked to interpret what’s going on in the marine environment to the general public. Franks has over 35 years experience as a fisheries biologist with research interests ranging from life history studies of Gulf of Mexico offshore fishes such as cobia, tunas, billfishes and sharks to pioneering research the floating seaweed Sargassum, an offshore essential habitat for many fish species. He has been involved in the development of cutting edge technologies for the laboratory culture of key marine species such as cobia and tripletail. At heart Jim is a marine conservationist and has quietly had a major impact on marine environmental conservation the Mississippi Gulf Coast and waters beyond. In this article we document and expand on Jim’s contributions to both science and conservation of the marine environment.
Early Years and Professional History
Jim was born and raised in Newport, Tennessee, a small town located near the Great Smoky Mountain National Park and the border of North Carolina. He grew up with a strong interest in the outdoors and fished on the Pigeon River which at that time was polluted with paper mill effluent. Following high school Jim enrolled in Tennessee Wesleyan College a small liberal arts, Methodist-affiliated, college in Athens, Tennessee. Those college years were significant to Jim’s professional development in several ways. A biology major, he was introduced to the ‘new’ science of ecology that emphasized interrelationships among plants, animals and the environment rather than the traditional study of individual components of those systems. This was also when Jim first encountered the first of a series of mentors who help guide his later career choices. One of his biology teachers at Tennessee Wesleyan had worked with Dr. Harry Bennett, an LSU professor who taught in the summers in the GCRL Summer Field Program. The professor recommended that Jim go down to Ocean Springs and take Bennett’s course in marine biology. In the summer of 1963 Jim did just that and also took a course in marine ichthyology taught by Dr. Herbet Boschung, a noted ichthyologist at the University of Alabama and author of the Fishes of Alabama. That summer began a lifelong association among Jim, GCRL and Ocean Springs. Jim returned the following summer to teaching assistant for Boschung’s fish course, then took Bennett’s marine invertebrates course the second semester. The summer courses at GCRL were rigorous with lectures, laboratory work and study occupying fourteen or more hours each day for six weeks but Jim loved it and it kindled his decades-long fascination with marine fishes, especially the offshore pelagics.
In 1964 Jim enrolled in the master’s degree program in biology at the University of Mississippi and began his thesis research on the fishes of the lagoons of Horn Island under the direction of renowned marine fisheries scientist and naturalist Gordon Gunter who was the Director of GCRL. After completing his master’s degree, Gunter asked Jim to fill a permanent position at GCRL working under the tutelage of GCRL ichthyologist Charles Dawson and fisheries scientist J.Y. Christmas doing work on offshore benthos and nekton, much of which focused on marine animals that inhabit the offshore water column. This work was done on the RV Gulf Researcher, an old single screw, wooden 65’ Army surplus river transport boat. The research team worked the barrier islands of the Mississippi Sound out sixty miles often in conditions and performing tasks that would make a modern day university administrator cringe. Sometimes lines from the ship would get snarled on the propeller shaft requiring Jim and his colleagues to go overboard and dive down to cut the lines out the propeller. That project lasted almost three years and was succeeded by another project to examine offshore larval fishes. These federally funded studies were some of the first anywhere to begin looking at the offshore marine resources of the Gulf of Mexico and provided unique baseline information not previously available.
Hurricanes have played a major role intermittent role in Jim’s life. He is one of only a few GCRL employees who witnessed the devastation that both Hurricanes Camille and Katrina wreaked on the Lab and he suffered personal losses from each. At the time of Camille, Jim was living on Lab grounds in the Big House near the water. The night Camille came ashore he moved to higher ground in the lab dormitory and there rode out the storm. The next morning he found the Big House completely destroyed along with the larval fish collection he and his colleagues had acquired over the past several years. Thirty six years later in 2005, Hurricane Katrina again devastated GCRL including Jim’s office along with his personal residence on the Front Beach area of Ocean Springs requiring him to live in a small FEMA trailer for several years.
Back to Jim’s chronology, in 1972, succumbing to a strong case of wanderlust, Jim resigned his position at GCRL to tour the country on his motorcycle. In 1978 after working in Pennsylvania and Tennessee as a biologist for several years, Franks returned to GCRL to work on the environmental assessment of the Bay of Saint Louis sponsored by the DuPont Corporation which was planning to put a chemical production plant on the north shore of the Bay. When that project lapsed he joined the South Mississippi Regional Planning and Development District as Principal Investigator on a feasibility study dealing with the utilization of seafood processing wastes as a nutrient-rich fertilizer. This project lead to a position with the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources which he held until he returned to GCRL in 1989. At the DMR, Jim worked on several initiatives, including coauthoring the state’s first oil spill contingency plan, which became useful in light of the Deepwater Horizon incident in 2010, and environmental guidelines for oil and gas development in Mississippi waters. He also conducted biological research on sport fishes, focusing his efforts on fishing tournaments as the source of sample material for his studies. His participation in the Sport Fish Restoration Program funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for the DMR was the springboard for much of Jim’s work at the GCRL the past two decades on the offshore pelagic sportfishes of the Gulf of Mexico, circling around to his interests in the offshore species spawned by his experiences at GCRL in the 1960s.
Cobia Life History Studies
Cobia (Rachycentron canadum) is a prized sport fish and has a worldwide distribution in warm marine waters. Nevertheless, relatively little was known about the life history and migratory patterns. In 1989, the U.S. Sport Fish Restoration program and the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources supported a cobia research program that operated out of Franks’ lab. The objective of the program was to gather information on life history aspects of cobia especially in the Northern Gulf of Mexico. This project produced the first detailed biological study of cobia in the Northern GOM region to document age, growth, feeding habits and reproductive strategies, information critical to Gulf-wide management of the species. The tagging part of the study continues. With data gleaned from over 15,000 cobia tagged and released and over 1,000 recaptured, this program has documented the annual spring migration of cobia from South Florida to the northern Gulf spawning grounds off Northern Florida to Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas where they reside until fall. It has always been assumed that cobia then return to South Florida in the fall to overwinter then resume the migration again in the spring. However, studies by Franks and GCRL colleagues have shown that some cobia overwinter in deep waters of the Northern Gulf and have migratory patterns that likely extend down the Texas coast into Mexican waters. This complicates managing the stock as the fish now become a multi-national species.
New tagging technologies are being developed that promise to yield tremendous information about the life histories of cobia and other species. Although expensive, these technologies are advancing rapidly and satellite tags that capture and store large amounts of geographic information of the fish’s movement patterns. Franks believes that advances in the miniaturization of chemical and physical sensors (tags) will enable fisheries scientists to better understand the environmental history of fishes especially as to what chemical contaminants, contaminants as well as other physical and chemical parameters they encounter during their lives.
Compared with freshwater fishes, only a few marine fishes have been successfully cultured and brought to market. Because cobia have exceptional culinary appeal, rapid growth rates and general ease of culture they show great promise for aquaculture. The first step in cultivating any fish species is to establish controlled spawning conditions. Franks and his colleagues were the first to spawn cobia in captivity (Franks et al., 2001). Since that time and according to the FAO, the main producer countries are China and Taiwan and cobia production has been reported from the Bahamas, Belize, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Viet Nam, Puerto Rico and the United States. In 2004 reported production figures were about 30 metric tons with a value of about $36M USD. China accounted for 80.6% of the reported world production.
Large Pelagic Fish Research
Franks and his GCRL colleagues have been engaged in research of large pelagic fishes in the Gulf of Mexico since the late 1990s. They have investigated life history aspects (age, reproductive biology, feeding, habitats and movements/migrations) of ecologically and economically important species such as yellowfin tuna, wahoo, large pelagic sharks (including whale sharks), blue marlin, and the iconic bluefin tuna. Funding for much of this work came from private donations and the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Bluefin tuna support one of the most valuable fisheries in the world with individual fish sometimes valued in the tens of thousands of dollars. The value is driven primarily by the Japanese passion for raw fish. Bluefin tuna comprise two Pacific and two Atlantic stocks with the Atlantic represented by a single species. The Atlantic species spawns in only two places, the Mediterranean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico. With funding from NOAA and the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation, Jim has been studying the early life history and reproductive patterns of bluefin tuna in the Gulf of Mexico making annual spring cruises on GCRL’s RV Tommy Munro to collect bluefin larvae. GCRL now holds one of the largest individual collections of bluefin tuna larvae from the GOM. Collection of offshore planktonic specimens can be accomplished in two ways: by assigning collection points from a geographic grid or, as pioneered by Jim and his colleagues, strategically targeting sampling locations based on historical data, physical features such as sea temperature and currents as well as tide lines and floating habitat such as Sargassum. His studies have improved our understanding of where and when bluefin tuna spawn in the Gulf of Mexico and how the larvae are dispersed and utilize ocean currents such as the Loop Current and associated eddies.
Jim is one of only a handful of scientists who have first hand, visual knowledge of the impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill had on offshore species. During the May 2010 cruise, Jim and his colleagues collected larval bluefin tuna from waters contaminated with raw petroleum. The impact of the spill on future tuna populations is not known but warrants surveillance for several years to gauge possible effects.
Pelagic Sargassum is a brown free-floating seaweed (actually algae) common to the South Atlantic Ocean (Sargasso Sea) and the Gulf of Mexico. It has been considered historically as ‘oceanic biologic trash’ and at times used as a component of cattle fodder. Recognizing its value as a floating, off shore habitat, Jim has worked hard to change those impressions. His research on sargassum mats in the Northern Gulf of Mexico supported with funding from the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources and the NOAA Northern Gulf Institute has shown that sargassum actually is critical habitat for more than 150 pelagic fish species sheltering many species for their entire life histories and other species including billfishes and offshore game fishes such as dolphin fish (mahi mahi). Following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, some advocated burning oil-fouled sargassum found in offshore Gulf waters but Jim was prominent among the opposition voices making the convincing argument that widespread burning might lead to indiscriminate burning of healthy sargassum as well.
The Return of Tarpon to the Mississippi Gulf Coast and Jim’s Encounter with Deadly Vibrio vulnificus
Sometimes rare events do occur in pairs. This happened when Jim’s studies of the potential return of tarpon, a prized gamefish, to waters along the Mississippi coast after decades of absence exposed him to Vibrio vulnificus, a deadly marine flesh-eating pathogen. Until the mid-1950s, tarpon were prevalent along the coast of the Northern Gulf of Mexico and supported a vibrant sport fishery. The region also served as a nursery ground for juvenile tarpon. The reason for the radical decline in the fishery is unclear but pollution and loss of habitat due to coastal development are usually cited. The real case might be even more complex and include climate change and loss prey species, especially for the juveniles. From the 1960s on there were only scattered reports of small numbers of juvenile tarpon being found along the Mississippi coast. Then in the mid-2000s Jim and his colleagues begin collecting scores of juvenile tarpon in bayous and tidal ditches in Jackson County, Mississippi. Ten-pound plus ‘juvenile’ tarpon have been caught recently in coastal bays and rivers by Franks and GCRL colleagues along with a few local anglers. One ten-pounder was even entered into the Mississippi Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo in 2008. With support from the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources (DMR) and the Historic Ocean Springs Saltwater Flyfishing Club (HOSSFLY), Jim is aggressively continuing his surveys of Mississippi tarpon, tracking the results of the yearly spawn and looking for the evidence that the reoccurrence is permanent.
That brings us to the second rare event, Jim’s infection by Vibrio vulnificus. Vibrio vulnificus is a bacterium that occurs in warm salt waters such as those in the Northern Gulf of Mexico. The organism rarely infects humans but in October 2010, Jim sustained a minor scrape on his lower leg on a bulkhead while he was sampling for juvenile tarpon. Recognizing the potential for infection, Jim cleansed and applied an antibiotic to the scrape when he returned home. Soon, he noticed severe pain and the spread of blistering near the wound and immediately drove himself to the hospital. Thanks to early recognition of the symptoms, particularly by Dr. Jay Grimes, a marine microbiologist at GCRL specializing in the Vibrios, and the expert treatment by physicians and staff at the Singing River Hospital in Ocean Springs, Jim survived his encounter with V. vulnificus with his life and limb intact but the recovery and treatment were prolonged.
Marine Conservation Advocacy
Throughout his career Jim has been a highly effective advocate for the conservation of the marine environment and its resources. For their research describing pelagic Sargassum in the Gulf of Mexico as essential habitat for larval and juvenile fishes, the American Fisheries Society presented Jim and GCRL Sargassum Team colleagues the 2003 Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration Award for the Outstanding National Project of the Year. Some of Jim’s other professional awards include the 2005 Mississippi Wildlife Federation Conservationist of the Year Award, the 2005 Mississippi Chapter, American Fisheries Society C. A. Shults Conservation Award, and the 2011 President’s Fishery Conservation Award of the American Fisheries Society. Jim’s conservation efforts have ranged from local initiatives such as designing a biking and walking path and the protection of urban marshes to strongly advocating catch and release practices for saltwater recreational fishermen. Jim has been on the Mississippi Wildlife Federation’s Board of Directors since 2006. He currently serves on two NOAA fisheries advisory panels, the Marine Fisheries Initiative (MARFIN) panel, where he served as Chair during 1997-2004, and the Highly Migratory Species (HMS) panel. He is the Chair of the Gulf and Caribbean Fisheries Institute and has been a Board member since 2003. His work with cobia, along with conservation policy developed by the Mississippi Coastal Conservation Association (CCA Mississippi), led to cobia being designated Mississippi’s only saltwater game species. The CCA sponsors the Jim Franks Conservation Award presented annually during Gorenflo’s Cobia Tournament. His efforts on behalf of marine conservation through mentoring students and teaching youth the basics of responsible sport fishing will yield dividends far into the future.
Selected Publications (from more than 50) by Jim Franks
Compiled by William E. Hawkins
Professor Emeritus and Director (Retired)
Gulf Coast Research Laboratory