Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Belize: Searching for stomatopods

Belize Expedition 2012

Introductions from Randi
This guest post comes to you from Amanda Franklin. She is a PhD student at Tufts University, having recently completed her masters degree at the University of Melbourne in Australia. She's studying sexual selection in stomatopods (more on that later!) and is working in the lab where I did my PhD work, carrying on the torch, so to speak! We're collaborating out here as she scouts her new study system. Meet other scientists I've overlapped with on Carrie Bow here.

Guest Post from Amanda Franklin
I woke up early Wednesday morning hoping that I was prepared for my first trip to Carrie Bow Cay and my first jaunt into fieldwork for my PhD. My aim for the trip was to find stomatopods (more commonly known as mantis shrimp), which are a small crustacean known for their complex eyes and lightning fast ‘punch’. They are popular aquarium animals because they are charismatic creatures which are usually brightly coloured. Three flights and one boat ride later I received my first glimpse of the tiny island that was to be home for the next week. I must say, fieldwork on a small island surround by reef in the tropics is quite a nice way to start my PhD.  So with high hopes I donned the snorkel gear and hit the shallow reefs around Carrie Bow.

I’ve never searched for, or seen, a stomatopod in the wild before, so I was hoping that my pre-trip research would pay off. I looked in burrows, between seagrass and in every crevice and hole I could see. Eventually I saw a little one, about 50 mm long, peeking out of a hole in a large rock. I was excited to see my first stomatopod, however, I was stumped as to how to get it out. The rock was much too big to take the lot and the stomatopod was much too fast.  Eventually deciding it was a lost cause, I moved on and kept looking.  After some further searching I found another one in a hole in a small piece of coral.  By the end of the day I had found and collected 6 stomatopods, all hiding in holes in corals, rocks or conch shells.  It seems that shallow water (about 0.5m) with patchy rubble and seagrass is the ideal habitat to find this species.

Heading to the microscope, I had a fair idea what genus this species must be in. Nevertheless, I started to key it out from the Family level. Some characteristics which are important for differentiating species, genera and families of stomatopods include the structure of the telson (tail area) and the raptorial appendage (‘punching’ arm) and the presence/absence of spines on the telson and rostral plate (near the head). I soon discovered that the species which I had found was Neogonodactylus oerstedii.

During the remainder of my time at Carrie Bow, I searched for more stomatopods and observed their behaviour in the lab. I found many more of the same species, as well as 3 other species (Pseudosquilla ciliata, Lysiosquilla sp. and the third I’m yet to identify). Living up to their name, they proved to be very territorial in the lab. Individuals would fight over cavities (PVC pipe in this case) by striking each other, with the larger individual coming out victorious. Cavities are an important asset for stomatopods as there are a limited number available and remaining in the open dramatically increases the risk of predation.

The exploratory research has been very beneficial for me as now I know what species are present in Carrie Bow, which species are more abundant, where to find stomatopods and how to house them in the lab. From here, I hope to begin researching their reproductive behaviours. As yet, I am unsure which direction my research will take, but there are many unanswered questions related to communication during courtship and mating (there are visual, auditory and chemical signals used), sexual selection (e.g. sperm competition) and the effect of environmental change on reproductive behaviours. So after this amazing week at Carrie Bow, it’s back to the books to learn more about this fascinating group of animals, and, more importantly, discover what is not yet known!

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Belize: Things that make you go, "Hmmmmm"

Belize Expedition 2012

Things are in full swing here. We're working multiple dives per day and measuring sites all over the reef. These are all sites we've visited multiple times before, and we're measuring things we've been measuring for a while. Far from hum drum, there are ALWAYS new things to see on a coral reef, if you look closely! One of my favorite things about science is that new mysteries abound; nature's curiosities are endless.

Carrie Bow Cay, Belize

On a remote island where bandwidth is limited and the internet is intermittent at best, we don't have the luxury of doing a full literature search for every question that comes up. Nor do we have the time, amidst diving and experiment prep! But though the answers are (at least for the moment) elusive, the questions keep coming fast and furious. Here are today's mysteries - perhaps you can help us to solve them. Given the resources here on the island, we really have no idea.

First, an Agaricia coral colony with a pie-wedge shaped color anomaly. A different coral symbiont? Mild bleaching? A non-fatal disease? And even if one of those is the case, why such an odd pattern? Note: There was nothing shading or abrading this colony.

Second, a colony of Montastrea cavernosa with some polyp tissue removed down to the skeleton -- but with the skeleton intact. Though one of my main research themes is the investigation of corallivory (the consumption of live corals), I have yet to find a plausible explanation for this grazing pattern. Many common corallivorous fishes would have removed the skeleton as well as the tissue, or would have been unable to remove the fleshy tissue from these large polyps so completely. Most invertebrates don't feed in such a scattered pattern, and I couldn't find any corallivorous invertebrates in the vicinity. Could it be a disease? No disease that I'm familiar with leaves polyp tissue so completely and cleanly removed, in such a scattered fashion. But... I am not an expert on coral diseases. Note: There was nothing shading or abrading this colony, either. :-)

As science and discovery continue on-island, we'll keep looking for new mysteries to ponder and share. We welcome your help in our endeavors!

Science, ho! And, hmmmm.....

Randi, Pete, Amanda, Danny, Jeff, and Zoe

Belize: Follow-up to babies post

Belize Expedition 2012

In this post we shared pictures of some reef babies that we know and love. Here is a glimpse of what they might grow up to look like:

A tiny coral can grow to be a huge colony that provides habitat for fishes. 

Baby coral (left) and adult acropora palmata (right)
Though some fish grow to be huge, some small fish stay relatively small in size, but large in importance—like these planktivores that help to keep tropical waters clear and healthy. 

Baby blue chromis (top) to the adult chromis (below)

We've been busy in the field but stay tuned, there's lots more to come from Carrie Bow Caye!

Monday, September 24, 2012

Belize: A very special guest

Last night, we had a very special guest on the island — a nesting sea turtle! Unfortunately, no one actually saw the turtle, but someone heard some commotion at around 3:30 am.

In the morning: voila! Tracks!

 Sea turtle tracks in the sand

Signs of a sea turtle

Trampled pickleweed after sea turtle came ashore to nest

And a nest!

Most likely a hawksbill, there are probably ~ 200 eggs in the nest that will hatch in about 2 months. Carrie Bow is a SMALL island - 3/4 of an acre - but every year, there are multiple turtle nests and hatches, meaning that over 1000 turtles hatch here every year. It's a nice reminder that even just a small bit of natural habitat can make a difference to the future of the oceans and it's creatures.

The sea turtle likely came ashore right here!

Vive la mer!

-Randi, Pete, Amanda, Danny, Jeff, and Zoe

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Back in Belize

Belize Expedition 2012

We are in Belize again, at the remote Carrie Bow Cay research station run by the Smithsonian Caribbean Coral Reef Ecosystems Program. The main purpose of this trip is to conduct out biannual monitoring of the CBC reef to check on the status of the corals, fishes, and other reef denizens. Of course, we never have just one project going on, so stay tuned for updates on other projects coming soon to this blog! :-) [Read posts from the 2010 and 2011 Belize Expeditions]

One of the things that we check for is growth and for the size of various organisms--size is, for most reef organisms, proportional to age. Of course we all like to see large, thriving corals that have been growing for decades. We also love to see large fishes--a mark of a healthy and and reproductive population. But we also love to see babies! Babies indicate new life--new growth--and the future of reef health. Plus, babies are just darn cute, as everyone knows.

Here are a few of our favorite babies from this trip so far:

We wonder, what will these young ones be when they grow up? What will their homes look like? Will they rise to their fullest potential? These little ones have already come so far. They've survived their larval stage, and have successfully recruited to the reef. They have avoided predation and competition in order to get as large as we see them. But, they will have a long way to go. Stay tuned for adult versions of these organisms, which we will post later on, to show you what these babies will hopefully become.


Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Mainland China: Reflections on Global Seafood

Matt Thompson is a senior aquaculture specialist with the Aquarium’s Sustainable Seafood Programs (SSP). He is blogging from the Seafood Summit in Hong Kong. The Seafood Summit brings all those concerned with sustainable seafood together in a conference to identify challenges and look for solutions.   

After a grueling eight hour coach journey I returned to Hong Kong to prepare for an equally grueling 14-hour, carbon off-setted flight. The way back offers time (seriously, a whole lot of time) to reflect on what I’ve seen and heard on this trip.

We are, it seems at an important junction both in the World and in seafood. The role that the growing middle class in Asia will play in sustaining seafood is unclear. Will serving fish from vulnerable populations or farm stocks be perceived more prestigious and valuable since they are scarce resources, leading to further exploitation of aquatic resources? Or will it be perceived as disrespectful to the family, guests and the environment to serve unsustainable seafood becoming a driving force to accelerate improvement in fisheries management and aquaculture performance?

Whatever happens, back here in the U.S. we import 80% of our seafood, in Europe 50%, and a large amount of that is farmed (more on that here and here) or fished in Asia. It is likely that the local markets in these countries will reduce our ability to import fish and shellfish.

I believe we have an opportunity to expand our national aquaculture industry in an environmentally responsible way. We already produce a number of ocean-friendly options, including channel catfish, oysters, and clams. Equally important is improving practices and market-access of small-scale producers both domestically and abroad, such that we can meet our national needs and the future global demands, while preserving the environment and the socio-economic benefits of aquaculture.

This experience will inform the work of Aquarium’s Sustainable Seafood Programs and we will continue to take our opportunities so that our little aquarium on Central Wharf can have a big benefit on the seafood we eat and the ecosystems that produce it.

Many thanks for sharing these experiences with me!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Mainland China: Shrimp Farming

Matt Thompson is a senior aquaculture specialist with the Aquarium’s Sustainable Seafood Programs (SSP). He is blogging from the Seafood Summit in Hong Kong. The Seafood Summit brings all those concerned with sustainable seafood together in a conference to identify challenges and look for solutions.  

From local markets, through small-scale marine cage aquaculture, we finally arrived at the production of America’s favorite seafood item – shrimp. Around two thirds of the shrimp we eat is farmed  and the majority of that is raised in Asia and primarily imported to the U.S. from Thailand.

Unlike the marine fish farming we saw yesterday, this was in no way small-scale. The company that had open its doors to us was both large-scale and vertically integrated, meaning that they owned their own shrimp farms, shrimp hatcheries, feed manufacturing plants, and processing plants. These behemoths of the seafood industry have an abundance of control over their farming practices and the ability to invest in their operations.

We began with a tour of the company’s impressive processing plant. I’m sorry that I don’t have photos of this part of the trip - we weren’t allowed to bring cameras or any other items in for food safety reasons. The positive side of which means there are no embarrassing photos of me donning the hair net, face mask, overcoat, and boots we had to wear to walk around the plant. These companies go to great lengths to ensure your raw and cooked shrimp are safe to eat. Once reacquainted with our cameras, we headed to the hatchery.

In long concrete raceways, the broodstock or parents of the shrimp we actually eat swim (which sounds rather grim when put that way), ready to hatch a new batch of shrimp for farming. Interestingly, these broodstock were Hawaiians, raised on the islands then imported to China due to their “specific pathogen free” or SPF status. Viral diseases (which affect shrimp not humans), have played, and continue to play, havoc with the shrimp farming industry, thus it’s critical that farming begins with disease-free stocks.

Leaving the hatchery, we arrived at a good example of a modern shrimp farm. Globally, shrimp farming has had a difficult history; including the conversion of ecologically important mangrove forests into shrimp ponds, chemical abuses, an overuse of fish in feeds (both direct and in commercial diets), pollution from waste leaving the farms, and viral diseases – just to name a few of these issues. However, the industry is maturing with some practices, particularly mangrove conversion and are becoming more of a thing of the past.

Globally, the industry covers the whole range, from ocean-friendly operations to those still engaged in the more damaging practices. On the whole the shrimp we eat in the U.S. is increasingly coming from improving operations. We still have a way to go, particularly regarding feed, but positive signs are there. My role at the Aquarium is principally focused on working with our corporate partners to drive improvements in the sources of farmed shrimp they buy.

Although, I didn’t have time to do a detailed assessment of this operation, what I did see here is that this farm had lined its ponds, which can help reduce the seepage of salty water into the surrounding environment. They also filtered the waste water leaving the farm, reducing its potential to pollute.

The infrastructure was also very strong, so strong in-fact that this was the first time I’ve ever been on a farm with pond walls strong enough to drive a coach full of people over them! Aside from keeping us in air-conditioned goodness (it was probably 100F with 100% humidity outside – good for shrimp, bad for me), this also reduces the potential for pond walls to fail and release what is a non-native shrimp species into the surrounding environment.

Personally, I’d have liked to have spent all day on the farm and really got into the weeds of its environmental performance, looking for those opportunities for improvement, but it was not to be and soon enough we were back on the coach and on the way.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Mainland China: Small-Scale Aquaculture

Matt Thompson is a senior aquaculture specialist with the Aquarium’s Sustainable Seafood Programs (SSP). He is blogging from the Seafood Summit in Hong Kong. The Seafood Summit brings all those concerned with sustainable seafood together in a conference to identify challenges and look for solutions.   

I awoke in Yangjiang, Dongpin County in the South of China – along with the 8 million people who called this city home. Breakfast in the hotel’s 47th floor revolving restaurant gave us sweeping views of the sprawling city. What surprised me was just how little Chinese influence could be seen in the construction; this really could have been a modern city in the U.S.

Once in the coach again, I started to notice that hidden amongst the overpasses and side roads were very small fish farms – likely no more than 1 or 2 small ponds and family run operations. These are the folks who make up the vast majority of fish farmers globally. Most of their production enters local markets at lower prices, rather than the export market. These operations often lack the financial and technical necessities to meet the requirements of importing countries, meaning that these producers are often scraping by to make a living from their farms. Our goal today was to visit some small-scale marine finfish cage aquaculture in Yangjiang, Dongpin County.

The visual impact of arriving at the site is significant; ahead is what appears to be a small floating town, bobbing in the weak tide just a few hundred feet past the water’s edge. Several boats are lined up with their engines idling, ready to bring us aboard this aquaculture island.


As the boats move through the water, I realized the scale of the industry in the bay. Row after row of small floating cages pass by – over a thousand in all – and each one a simple raft made of a few empty barrels, long planks of wood, and nets that sink a few feet into the water. Below the surface, stocks of pompano, grouper and red drum swim, patiently (or perhaps impatiently) waiting their next meal.

The island is occupied and not just by the visitors eating the freshest of seafood in one of the floating restaurants in amongst the farms. Dogs come barking out of the small huts on the cages; following their master’s command to protect the farm from would be poachers – one of them taking a cooling swim as our boat passes by.

We arrive at one of the farms, guests of the chairman of the Cage Culture Association – a group formed of the farmers of around 400 of the cages in the bay. The Association, a collaborative organization that allows the farmers to pool their resources to buy commercial feed plays an important role in reducing “trash fish”, one of the main environmental issues here.

So called “trash fish” are small wild-caught fish that are unsuitable or unwanted for direct human consumption. The farmer grinds up whole fish to feed the species being farmed. This direct use of fish can be a very inefficient use of marine resources, invites disease, and creates more waste entering the environment. The ability to use commercial feed as a result of Association is an improvement over basic practice. The use of commercial feed is not without its issues, since it is also made with fish as an ingredient, but its a more efficient use than direct feeding. Globally, there is interest in finding alternatives to fish in feed as these resources have become limited, and increasingly more expensive.

We watched as the farm staff harvested some of the fish; a type of pompano. Originally, these fish were stocked as babies (aka fry) from a hatchery in Hainan, a Southern island of China (also known as the Chinese “Hawaii”). They were fed regularly on a dry pellet diet made for “marine fish” – it took around two pounds of feed to produce one pound of the pompano. The fish were harvested by bringing the net to the surface and scooping them out individually – ready for both the domestic fresh or live markets, or as it turns out as gifts for visitors!

While it was clear that some of the farmers in the bay were making improvements to their practices, I felt they still had plenty of work ahead of them from an environmental perspective. That said, the fish looked like they were in really great shape, with clear eyes, bright colors, and good skin condition. They also tasted great!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Mainland China: The "Real China aquaculture experience"

Matt Thompson is a senior aquaculture specialist with the Aquarium’s Sustainable Seafood Programs (SSP). He is blogging from the Seafood Summit in Hong Kong. The Seafood Summit brings all those concerned with sustainable seafood together in a conference to identify challenges and look for solutions.  

With the Summit officially over, I moved on to the second phase of my visit to Asia—the “real China aquaculture experience.” Arranged by the Seafood Summit team, myself and nearly 30 others boarded a coach to mainland China. Our first stop was the Huangsha Live Seafood Market, in Guangdong Province in the South of China. 

Here, all sorts of freshwater and marine life is bought and sold live to the public, restaurants and further distributors who move the fish around the country. The streets around the market were vibrant, with trucks moving constantly to unload live fish and shrimp into boxes and then hastily deposited in the waiting tanks in the shops.

There wasn’t a sense that there was much awareness of the seafood on display’s sustainability and I saw very few signs to this effect, though some ocean-friendly options like farmed oysters were present there were also a number of potentially more challenged species next to them also available for purchase.

As we moved deeper into the market, there were more and more surprises—including octopus, snakes, sea urchins, and a type of beetle—all available live for the customer (but not for me, I’m not that adventurous!).

It’s clear that the Chinese love their seafood, but there is a need for better information about the status of the fisheries and aquaculture that they enjoy so much. The more sustainability conscious they become, the more they will be able to drive improvements with their buying power.


Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Hong Kong: Aquaculture innovation panel discussion

Matt Thompson is a senior aquaculture specialist with the Aquarium’s Sustainable Seafood Programs (SSP). He is blogging from the Seafood Summit in Hong Kong. The Seafood Summit brings all those concerned with sustainable seafood together in a conference to identify challenges and look for solutions.  

Today, I had the great pleasure to moderate a panel at the Seafood Summit, it was entitled: “Untapped potential for sustainability: Exploring aquaculture innovation in Asian aquaculture.” The purpose of the panel was to call leading experts to give their opinions on some of the most effective technologies and practices in Asian aquaculture and identify how they can used in other global aquaculture industries to reduce the environmental and social impact of aquaculture.

My panel consisted of Dr. Malcolm Beveridge an aquaculture scientist from Worldfish Center who uses his extensive knowledge of the industry to tackle the environmental challenges of aquaculture, as well as poverty and hunger in the developing World; Olav Jamtøy from a company named Genomar that raises improved tilapia by selectively breeding them for things like faster growth ; Robins McIntosh, from CP Thailand, who is a pioneer in shrimp farming and actively works to move this improving industry towards ever better and more responsible practices, Dr. Rohana Subasinghe, a globally recognized leader that works with the FAO to analyze and predict trends in global aquaculture.

Collectively, the panel showed that Asian aquaculture was a leader in production in fish farming and had some of the most efficient fish farming systems globally. We all agreed that there is an opportunity to learn from these producers to increase global aquaculture production, which was important as we face a large shortfall in seafood supply relative to the demand of future generations. Another issue was that despite the rapid growth in aquaculture production, the numbers are below what they need to be to meet the growing demand. The panel highlighted challenges for the industry, including feed, technology, and finance. Disease and biosecurity (techniques to prevent the introduction of disease) were also identified, with Dr. Subasinghe highlighting that the annual losses from diseases in aquaculture cost around $6 billion. But innovation, creating ideas and technological solutions to address challenges in aquaculture, could offer us a way to expedite an increase in seafood production while addressing its environmental challenges. Innovations learned from shrimp and tilapia farming, such as selective breeding and biosecurity can improve efficiencies to, as Robins put it, we can “get more from less”. These innovations have the potential to be transferred to other aquaculture industries, especially the smaller-scale fish farmers that form the majority of the people working in aquaculture, around the world to increase production, profitability and food security – all while reducing aquacultures environmental footprint. My thanks again to the panel.

From the left, Me, Dr. Rohana Subasinghe, Dr. Malcolm Beveridge, Robins McIntosh, Olav Jamtøy

While there are great innovations in Asian aquaculture, there are also ongoing challenges. Additionally, innovations may not be used by all the farmers in the industry, making it important to source seafood from farms that make meaningful efforts to reduce their environmental impact.

– Matt