Sitting in his office in southwestern Florida, Dr. Aaron Adams worries about tar balls as he wonders about tarpon.

The fisheries scientist, a Baltimore area native and graduate of St Mary's College of Maryland, has made a career of studying tarpon and bonefish--strong, fast moving fish that are no match for the smothering carpet of oil created by the Deepwater Horizon disaster.


"There are a lot of unknowns," he said of the effects of the spill. "It's not just the oil but the toxins in the oil and the toxins in the dispersants." Tarpon and bonefish are prized by anglers, especially those wielding fly rods, and are a significant draw in the Gulf coast's multi-billion dollar recreational industry. The tarpon is Alabama's state fish.

But little is known about them--where they spawn and how juvenile fish develop. Scientists don't know if the spill will disrupt migratory patterns or destroy eggs. That makes it hard to chart how the BP gusher will upset the life cycle.

"We have no baseline on many fish," Adams said in a telephone interview. "With tarpon, we don't know where they spawn. If it's where we think it is, it's at the edge of the Loop Current."

That, of course, would put generations of tarpon on a collision course with disaster.

On Monday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reopened an area in the Gulf of Mexico it had previously closed to fishing. The no-fishing zone now covers 78,264 square miles, or about 32% of federal waters in the Gulf, a slight decrease since last week.

NOAA said it reopened about 430 square miles of the Gulf near the Florida Panhandle because data indicated the slick hadn't followed projections.

That buys time.

But Adams, who works for the Mote Marine Laboratory, worries about how we use that brief reprieve and the years to come.

"We just don't have the money to do the research," he said. "We haven't invested in the research very well. Fishing here is a multi-billion dollar industry. Even $1 billion spent on research, while it isn't much, would go a very long way. We invest in 401k's for our retirement, we ought to invest in this."

Twelve years ago, Adams was a founding member of a group that became the Bonefish and Tarpon Trust http://www.tarbone.org to make the most of research efforts, lobby and educate the public. Founding members included fly fishing great Lefty Kreh, sports broadcasting legend Curt Gowdy and retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf.

Adams said research money could be used to do stock assessments, fund projects, train and equip recreational anglers to help with surveys and build up the network of scientists. And it could be used to study the effects of an oil disaster on fish and their habitat.

"It looks like down the road there's going to be more off-shore drilling...It would be foolish to assume this isn't going to happen again," he said. "Here in southwest Florida, we're in the clear now, but that's a myopic view."

He continued, "If the oil comes to southwest Florida, I'm sure that will open a lot of [research] doors, but I'm hoping those doors don't open."