Saturday, December 14, 2013

A Fish Tale, Then Fish Sticks

Aquarium scientists run investigations here on Central Wharf and travel around the world studying marine habitats and helping find solutions to some of our oceans' most challenging problems. Thanks to the recently renovated John H. Prescott Marine Laboratory, Aquarium researchers are engaging in a series of important studies that they will be posting about here on the Global Explorers Blog.

This special guest post comes from graduate student Connor Capizzano of the University of New England who is working with members of the New England Aquarium's Marine Fish Stress and Health Program to investigate discard mortality in Gulf of Maine Atlantic cod. This summer, Connor led a team of scientists, students, and professional anglers to collect data for this important study.

Did you hear that? I did… it was the crack of dawn! Time to fish!

 Like everyone on the water today, I had my own reasons for venturing off into the blue planet at a young age. Apart from my fascination with the water world (Steven Spielberg’s JAWS was a motivator), it had always been in my blood to be on the water. My grandfather used to fish his own lobsterpots out of Point Judith, RI, in the same small dingy he would use to traverse Narragansett Bay to see the annual Newport Tall Ships festival. Ever since I could remember, my father would wake me at the crack of dawn so we could fish rainbow trout on opening day. Although I was half-awake and chilled to the bone, the excitement of reeling in a fighting fish that feverishly broke the surface was unmatched by any other experience. We would also go flukin’ (groundfish for flounder) along Rhode Island’s southern coast from our family’s boat or go quahoggin’ (shellfishing for hard clams) in the nearby salt pond estuary. Life was and still is good.

Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua)

Yet, the amount of fish and their average size are not doing as well as they used to in the past. As previously mentioned in our first and second blog post, the Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua) is one of the most important recreational and commercial fish species in New England and is still attempting to recover from years of low population numbers. One of the greatest mysteries surrounding this fish is its own survival after it is caught-and-released by a recreational fisher. To shed more light on this unknown, our team (members of New England Aquarium, Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth and University of New England) fished throughout the months of July and August 2013 and tagged over 600 juvenile and adult cod off of Cape Ann, Massachusetts. About 1/5th of these cod had small acoustic tags attached to them so we could see how they moved around the southern Jeffreys Ledge area and up-down in the water. To truly understand what affected the livelihood of these cod upon release into the abyss, we assessed a series of items for each fish.

Using ordinary stopwatches, our fishers would keep track of how long each cod was fighting on the line before being brought to the surface along with its time out of the water. Each codfish was then visually checked to see where the hook caught the animal, if there were obvious injuries such as punctures or barotrauma (i.e. due to changes in water pressure), and how severe they might be to the animal. We would see a wide variety of places where the hook caught the fish along with the injuries from the hook since each cod and angler rod-reel fight were so unique. While the data are still rolling into the lab, I can say that a vast majority of the fish left the boat in “excellent” condition with a minor hole in the lip or cheek where the hook used to be. Heck, some of the fish refused to let go of the hook which lead to a series of line tangles and fishing rods hitting anglers! Measuring and tagging a confused fish also proved to be challenging on a boat rolling in the incoming swells. Most cod were very cooperative participants whereas a select few had a little attitude and retaliated with some tail smacks to the hand, arm and even face (needless to say, water and other cod-based liquids went everywhere).

One of the many codfish to be caught in our study. Pictured above is Natalie Ingram, a University of New England undergraduate, with her first ever Atlantic cod. Although a die-hard Chicago Cubs fan, we won’t hold it against her with research on the line!

Captain Marc Stettner (left) and UNE undergraduate Joe Langan (right) attempt to unravel their twisted lines. Like Murphy’s Law: If it can go wrong, it definitely will go wrong!

One of the most memorable experiences on our research trips was the thrill of the fight and the overall fish that was brought up to the boat. Since fishing gear is not selective and hooks whatever comes by, our fishers encountered much bycatch (i.e. fish you didn’t mean to or want to catch) that included spiny dogfish, pollock and cusk. Nothing is quite like watching an angler fight for their life with a fish, expecting a “wicked huge” cod, and pulling up a very short-tempered wolffish. Even better was watching an angler reel up a fish that was no bigger than the lure they used to catch it! Much like the speed at which you open a birthday present and find it is only a gift card… but that could just be me. On the other hand, the boat times also proved to be an experience to remember for some of our first-time anglers. Nothing like going out for a day of fishing and catching 15 or more fish to top it off!

Some of the typical “friendly” critters we would find on our trips, none you would want to take home! Joe Langan (right) had a particularly difficult time not catching redfish.

UNE undergraduate Ashleigh Novak with her first tagged cod, Martin. It was tough to let him go but he will hopefully help us figure out what happens after release.

Even though we had our fun at sea, the project’s goals truly hit close to home for anyone who lives near the ocean. We live in a time where cod are no longer so plentiful that you could lower a basket into the depths and pull up pounds of cod. This year’s first and second place winning cod in the Casco Bay Classic Sportfishing Tournament (Portland, ME) didn’t even weigh 30 pounds combined! Cod populations were at such low numbers in Canada that a moratorium was passed in 1992 that closed the entire northern cod stock fishery. Over the past century, people have slowly realized that nothing is forever and we are attempting to ensure our future by conserving the present. Through research projects much like our own, we gain more insight on how these fish act in the wild and in the presence of humans. We hope our results, along with others, can aid future management and allow the codfish populations to slowly rise in the Gulf of Maine. Simultaneously, we hope the same management policies can keep the fishery open for anyone and everyone who want to enjoy some fishing and cod fillets at the end of the day. Much like my own childhood, I would someday like to take my own family out on a fishing adventure that they can remember from that day forward.

-Connor Capizzano

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Methods to Our Madness

Aquarium scientists run investigations here on Central Wharf and travel around the world studying marine habitats and helping find solutions to some of our oceans' most challenging problems. Thanks to the recently renovated John H. Prescott Marine Laboratory, Aquarium researchers are engaging in a series of important studies that they will be posting about here on the Global Explorers Blog. 

This post comes from intern Lauren Giglio of the Marine Fish Stress and Health Program and features work on discard mortality in Gulf of Maine Atlantic cod.

As we discussed in our first post, there is no fish more essential to New England’s history, culture, economy and marine ecosystem than the Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua). After centuries of fishing, however, the once vast cod population in Gulf of Maine is currently struggling to recover from historic lows. Today when you fish for cod, you must abide by strict quotas and size limits that have been put in place in order to help protect and rebuild the population of this iconic species. We at the New England Aquarium are part of a team aiming to determine what happens to the cod that get thrown back in accordance with these regulations.

“It’s a big one!” Recreational fishing is a popular pastime in New England waters and Atlantic cod are one of the main targets.

Together, under the direction of NEAq’s Dr. John Mandelman, we have been using two different tagging methods — one more conventional, the other more technologically modern — to track cod that are captured and released by recreational fishermen. We simulate the exact capture conditions (such as fishing gear and tackle most commonly utilized in this fishery in the region) that a cod would experience if it were hooked and reeled in by recreational fishers; however, before releasing the fish back into the ocean, we attach one of two different tags.

The first is called a T-bar tag. These small, individually numbered tags are all marked with “RESEARCH” as well as our phone number. The tags let fishing enthusiasts, like you and other fishermen, know that these cod are part of a study. Interested in helping? The next time you go out fishing and come across these specially marked fish, give us a ring! Don’t forget to let us know the fish’s identity (tag number), size (total length) and location (optimally geographic coordinates) of where you caught it. This “mark and recapture” method is simple, fast and inexpensive, which allows us to tag hundreds and hundreds of fish. However, it is also inefficient; the ocean is a big place, so the chances of someone catching one of our tagged fish are a bit slim. However, when this does happen and helpful fishers like you make the effort to contact us, the information can play an important role in determining the survival rate in these fish.

Cod were tagged with two T-bar tags, just in case one fell off.

Our second tracking method is much more complex, but allows us to more closely monitor the location of individual fish, hopefully for several weeks (in our case) after release. To do this, we attach a small acoustic transmitter to the fish. About the size of a AAA battery, the transmitter sends out a signal that gets picked up by receivers which we have placed strategically in the ocean, creating a coverage area known as an “acoustic receiver array.” Whenever one of our tagged fish swims within a third of a mile in any direction of a receiver, the receiver records the detection based on tag number. One advantage of the particular type of tag we use is its additional capacity to log pressure level at the point of the detection, from which we can approximate depth. Evidence of a tagged fish’s movement between receivers and depth are two of the primary criteria we use to estimate whether that fish is still alive in the aftermath of release, the main goal of the study.

Acoustic tags were attached to the fish between the first and second dorsal fin. These tags transmit an acoustic signal that is detected by receivers (such as the one shown on the right). Before putting these expensive transmitters on fish in the field, we did a preliminary laboratory study to make sure that the tags affixed in this manner did not detach, compromise health or impede swimming ability.

Using an array of 31 receivers, located on the southern portion of Jeffreys Ledge in waters just northeast of Cape Ann/Rockport, we were able to track the movements of tagged cod within a 13.5 square mile area.
This map depicts the location of our acoustic receivers off the coast of Cape Ann, Massachusetts, on the southern portion of Jeffreys Ledge. For our study, we deployed 17 additional receivers (indicated by black dots) to an existing array (indicated by pink plus symbols), which had been used by researchers at the Mass Division of Marine Fisheries (MADMF) for many past and ongoing projects. Our study greatly benefitted from their expertise. (Map courtesy of MADMF)

A diagram depicting the mooring system for each of our acoustic receivers. A steel weight anchors the receiver in place while a floating buoy attached to the receiver’s opposite end keeps it suspended in the water column. Each receiver is also tethered to radar reflective highflier that enables us to locate its position. When a tagged cod swims in the vicinity of one of our receivers, the receiver records the tag number. We later download this information from each receiver and use it to piece together the movement of our fish and estimate their survival rate. (Illustration by Lauren Giglio)

In mounting our study, we gave careful consideration to the fishing techniques used. The primary goal was to reflect the gear and practices used in the recreational hook-and-line fishery as closely as possible. In order to do this, we used information from a pre-study questionnaire given to fishers on their chosen practice, including bait, gear and techniques used when fishing for cod. Based on the survey results, we employed the most common fishing practices to catch cod for our study. Without considering this, the results of our study would be less applicable.

Fishing was done aboard the research vessel Alosa, captained by Bill Hoffman of MADMF, as well as the recreational fishing vessel Too Far, owned and operated by Captain Marc Stettner. Marc’s insight and expertise into New England’s recreational fishing industry and cod fishing in particular was invaluable. (Photos by C. Capizzano)

Once we had perfected our tagging methods and done our homework on the most common fishing practices, we were ready to take our study into the field. Throughout the summer, we fished within the confines of the acoustic array, as it was important to maximize the likelihood that tagged cod were detectable by our receivers for as long as possible. For each (sublegal) cod captured, we performed a series of quick evaluations and measurements. This included, but was not limited to, an assessment of the health and vitality of the fish, length measurements and noting where the fish was hooked. Once this rapid assessment was complete, a T-bar tag or an acoustic tag was attached and the animal released. We also kept careful track of the amount of time it took to reel the fish in as well as how much time it spent on deck, both of which can range depending on experience level of the fisher, whether pictures of the catch are taken prior to release, etc. This important field work was led by Connor Capizzano, a current graduate student in the Marine Science Department of the University of New England, who has been a crucial part of this project since its conception.

 “Thanks for the check up, guys!  I’m measured, tagged, and ready to be released back into the ocean.  See you soon!”  Connor Capizzano, graduate student, prepares to release a cod tagged with an acoustic transmitter.

Our ultimate aim is to correlate various factors of the fish’s capture (such as what gear configuration was used, how long the fish was on the hook and how much time it spent on deck, etc.) with its health and survival. This will help us determine which aspects of capture are the most stressful for a fish and reduce survival. In turn, this will allow us to advise recreational fishers on the capture and handling methods that offer the highest likelihood for survival of these released (sublegal) cod. In this way, the findings of this study may impact how you fish for cod in the future. You may see a “best handling and practice guide” being passed out on your next fishing trip to show you exactly how to keep your future prize-winning cod safe after you release these younger individuals back into the sea.

Until next time, fish enthusiasts!
- Lauren Giglio and the Aquarium's Mandelman Research Team

Keep checking in for a celebrity guest post from graduate student Connor Capizzano and to find out what we accomplished this summer!  

Friday, November 22, 2013

Thank you, cod!

Aquarium scientists run investigations here on Central Wharf and travel around the world studying marine habitats and helping find solutions to some of our oceans' most challenging problems. Thanks to the recently renovated John H. Prescott Marine Laboratory, Aquarium researchers are engaging in a series of important studies that they will be posting about here on the Global Explorers Blog. This post comes from Lauren Giglio and features work on discard mortality in Gulf of Maine Atlantic cod.

Here in the John H. Prescott Marine Laboratory at the New England Aquarium, we (Dr. John Mandelman and his research team) have been studying key questions that aid the management and conservation of certain vulnerable fish populations. Our chosen species of late? A New England favorite: Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua).

Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua), swim under a shipwreck laden with invertebrates in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary | Photo: NOAA via Wikimedia Commons

Unless in relation to a yummy looking recipe on your favorite restaurant menu, this fish may have not crossed your mind much; however, New Englanders have a lot to be thankful for when it comes to cod. For hundreds and perhaps thousands of years, this species has been an important dietary staple of the people native to the region now known as coastal New England. The Native Americans used bone crafted hooks and natural-fiber nets to catch this local fish. When European explorers first began venturing across the Atlantic to the “New World”, arriving exhausted after enduring painfully long journeys, they needed food…badly. When they turned to the ocean as their food source, some described the cod they observed as equal in size to them! As such, this fish, which was plentiful at the time, quickly became a hot commodity. Eventually, this led to the settlement of Europeans on a nearby cape extending from the easternmost point of Massachusetts, mapped and ultimately coined “Cape Cod” by John Smith (Kennedy, 2009).  Indeed, we in New England owe this iconic species its due. Unfortunately, however, the cod populations have not fared very well in recent years, and the once vast fishery has collapsed.

The bold black line on this graph shows the total commercial landings (in metric tons) of Atlantic cod in the Gulf of Maine from 1892 to 2011. In striking contrast, the gray polygon in the upper left indicates the estimated landings from 1861 to 1880 based on analysis of historical data (Alexander et al. 2009). Figure from NEFSC 2013.

If any of you have a love for fishing—whether it be to cash in big at a local fishing tournament; to put a meal on the dinner table; or to just enjoy the environment of the open sea—chances are that while gathering your catch for the day, you’ve probably thrown something back that you either didn’t want, or weren’t allowed to keep, before calling it a day. These things that get thrown back after being caught (e.g. undersized fish) are collectively referred to as discards. The cod fishery has seen its share of discards over the years, including an estimated 2,289 metric tons of it in 2010 alone for recreational fisheries in the Gulf of Maine (NEFSC, 2012)! When you and your friends go out to sea for a fishing trip, you are legally obligated to follow restrictions specific to certain species. With cod caught for recreation (i.e. not in the commercial fishery), for example, you can only keep a certain number of fish per day, and they must all be of a certain size. But what happens to the cod that do not fit those restrictions? Well, they are simply released back into the ocean to go about their day.  …Or do they?

“What Happens to the Rest?” Illustration by Lauren Giglio, 2013

Unfortunately, the experience of being thrown back into the ocean after being caught isn’t necessarily bliss. Being captured and handled by a person can be quite stressful for the fish.  Some of these stressors include physical injury due to hooks, rough handling, air exposure on deck, and temperature changes as they rise to the surface of the sea. The accumulated effects of these stressors also make fish more vulnerable to predation after being thrown back into the sea.  All of these stressors negatively impact the fish’s chance of survival, sometimes resulting in death after the fish is back in ocean (known as “post-release mortality”); but how many succumb to this fate? Because of the nature of fish (“Just keep swimming, just keep swimming…” –Dory, Finding Nemo), it is quite difficult to determine the exact percentage of fish that die after being released back into the open water. At the same time, it is very important to have this estimate to help inform management decisions, future stock assessments, and best fishing practices (to help reduce the number of fish that die in the future). At the present time, the estimated number of cod that die when caught by recreational hook and line fishing is purely guess work, calling the need for a study to address this.

This is where our team, which includes collaborators from the University of New England, Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, and hook fisherman Marc Stettner, step in. Our research studies the health effects and the mortality rates of sub-legally sized cod that are recreationally caught and released. By studying these effects, we gain a better understanding of the fate of these animals after they are released and how to alter fishing methods in order to reduce injury/stress for released animals. Through a variety of modern tracking techniques, we will follow the life of tagged cod in weeks and even months following capture in order to answer the question of how they behave and whether they live or die as a result of these handling/fishing methods. Results of this study will lead to two positive outcomes: first, to better estimate the post-release mortality rate of the species in this fishery, and second, to develop a “best capture and handling practices” guide to be distributed to the recreational fishing community to help promote strategies that reduce post-release mortality rates.
One of the tagged cod who will be working with our team during the study. Where will it swim next?

Not a scientist or interested in recreational fishing in the near future? Not to fret! You have an equally important role in keeping this important species of fish going strong. By having a better understanding of the information on cod in this blog and by visiting the New England Aquarium, you have taken the first step in protecting a very important fish population. You are now able to explain how fishing responsibly is important to keep fish populations stable enough to allow us to keep making memories while fishing with friends out on the open water. If you are interested in further information on sustainable fishing and possible recipes for sustainable seafood.

— Lauren
- Alexander, K. E., W. J. Bolster, A. B. Cooper, J. Cournane, W. B. Leavenworth, A. A. Rosenberg, R. Gee, T. K. Law, R. Dunn, K. Magness, L. Rains, G. Smith, S. Brennan, and S. Claesson. 2009. Gulf of Maine cod in 1861: historical analysis of fishery logbooks, with ecosystem implications. Fish and Fisheries 10,4:428-449.
- Kennedy, Jennifer. 2009. Brief History of Cod Fishing. (Online). About: Marine Life. Accessed October 16, 2013.  
- Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC). 2012. 53rd Northeast Regional Stock Assessment Workshop (53rd SAW) Assessment Report. US Dept Commer, Northeast Fish Sci Cent Ref Doc. 12-05; 559 p. Available from:  National Marine Fisheries Service, 166 Water Street, Woods Hole, MA 02543-1026, or online
- Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC). 2013. 55th Northeast Regional Stock Assessment Workshop (55th SAW) Assessment Report. US Dept Commer, Northeast Fish Sci Cent Ref Doc. 13-01.  Available from:  National Marine Fisheries Service, 166 Water Street, Woods Hole, MA 02543-1026, or online

Monday, November 11, 2013

Fiji 2013 | Five become one

For the past several years, the New England Aquarium has participated in a joint expedition to Fiji, along with the Monterey Bay Aquarium and other conservation-minded groups and individuals. The last expedition took place in Spring 2012

Today's post about the joint aquarium Fiji expedition comes from the Aquarium supporter and Boston Harbor Cruises Vice President Alison Nolan. (Our partners at Boston Harbor Cruises present the New England Aquarium Whale Watch.) 

The Earth is covered with five oceans: the Antarctic, Arctic, Atlantic, Indian and Pacific. These oceans cover 141,600,000 square miles—or 72 percent of Earth's surface. In fact, from space at just the right time during our daily revolution, Earth appears to be almost completely covered by water.

The world seen from space is largely blue ocean.
This image is of the Pacific Ocean. Image: NASA/Google Earth

But what divides the oceans other than boundaries identified by us? Where does one ocean stop and another start? Does what happens in the Atlantic stay in the Atlantic?

These are questions that we may have all wondered about but don’t often contemplate more deeply until a catalyst piques our interest. For me, that catalyst was my time spent in the Pacific with the New England Aquarium/ Monterey Bay Aquarium Joint Fiji Expedition.

Kiobo village children wave goodbye and bid us moce (pronounced moe’ they)—Fijian for see you again soon.  Kiobo is only a few feet above sea level.  Our climate changing actions in the States directly impact them half a planet away. Photo: Bailey

The Pacific Ocean is Fiji’s home and a welcoming host for our two-week journey. It is the world’s largest ocean by far, covering 69,375,000 square miles, or 35 percent of the earth. It is as big as the other four oceans combined and all of the Earth’s continents could fit snuggly into the Pacific Basin. My/Boston’s home, the Atlantic Ocean is the second largest, covering 41,105,000 square miles, or 21 percent of the Earth. It, however, is only slightly larger than half of the Pacific.

According to the World Register of Marine Species, there are 221,299 accepted marine species. It is further estimated that there are 700,000 – 1,000,000 species living in our oceans; most of which are yet to be discovered. As a new diver in Fiji, I must admit it felt as though all 700,000 were right in front of me at many, if not most, of our dive sites. I was struck at once that not only were the oceans vast, but they contained a quantity and diversity of life that in many ways outshines what is found here on land. From the smallest zooplankton to the largest blue whale, on some level, each of these species are dependent upon, and impacted by, each other in ways big and small—most of which we cannot even begin to measure. For every fish I saw, how many other species did it depend on and how many others depended on it? As a result, it is difficult to quantify what effect human interaction and environmental change is having on this delicate balance.

A banded sea krait (Laticauda colubrina) ambles through thick acropora. We nearly always see them at this site, and respectfully give them wide berth, even though they’re not as venomous as sea snakes. 
Dive site: Anthias Corner, Gau Island, Fiji | Photo: K. Ellenbogen

Abundance abides: Thick clouds of plankton feeding fishes, gorgonian sea fans and crinoids make the most of this end of a bommie crest. Cakemomo Atoll is a new dive site for the joint aquarium team,
and we surely were impressed by its richness. Photo: K. Ellenbogen

Blue green chromis (Chromis viridis) school around dense acroporid coral formations at  E6. Fiji’s Bligh Water and Vatu-I-Ra reef systems contain some of Fiji ‘s most beautiful and healthy animal assemblages.
Photo: K. Ellenbogen

This also hit home for me during our island clean up visit to Vatu-I-Cake. On this incredibly beautiful and seemingly pristine uninhabited island, we found piles of plastic, Styrofoam and other beach debris. So, although we have drawn lines across and assigned names to the world’s oceans, this was clear evidence that both ocean surface and deep-water currents are connecting us all to each other.

Ocean surface current illustration – NOAA

Just this summer, at Long Wharf, Boston, we were excited to find a message in a bottle that had traveled from New York over a period of two months. If that bottle weren’t fished out at Long Wharf where would and could it have gone in five years? Probably not Vatu-I-Cake but maybe Brazil or Morocco…

Message in bottle | Photo: A. Nolan

Ocean stewardship and conservation should start at home.  Each of us has to do what we choose is right for us as individuals, then it should continue on to our local communities, states, country and the global community.

For me, there were already many aspects of conservation that I understood, discussed and implemented in my personal and professional life.  But, being in Fiji and seeing firsthand the vast and diverse marine populations that live just out of sight below the ocean’s surface was something unique and eye opening.
From beginning to learn the names of fish species from Bailey, Mark and Heidi, to taking in Doc Webster’s daily post-breakfast talks that opened up a new world of invertebrate zoology, to checking out Jane’s first-ever underwater pictures, I developed an emotional connection to the marine environment that was distinctly different than before my first descent. For me, that is what I will take away from the Joint Fiji Expedition, as well as new friendships, great stories, some wonderful pictures and a beautiful kava bowl.

Since returning I have also begun to dive deeper into the New England Aquarium’s programs and offerings. I encourage you too to take a look, see what piques your interest and give an upcoming lecture a try. They are great ways to see what each of us can do to both better understand and protect our blue planet. Maybe I will see you there.

— Alison

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Fiji 2013 | Cleaning, Sex Change and Being "Wickedly Flattered." A Wrasse With A Very Full Life!

For the past several years, the New England Aquarium has participated in a joint expedition to Fiji, along with the Monterey Bay Aquarium and other conservation-minded groups and individuals. The last expedition took place in Spring 2012Today's post about cleaning stations and comes from the Aquarium's curator of fishes Steve Bailey.

In this last post post, you were promised some additional story telling regarding Joint Aquarium Fiji Expedition divers getting up close and sometimes serviced by other cleaner animals. This post focuses on one of our other favorites—the bluestreak cleaner wrasse (Labroides dimidiatus).

A Fiji morph bluestreak cleaner wrasses (Labroides dimidiatus) servicing a coral trout (Cephalopholis miniatus), dive site: Mt. Mutiny, Bligh Water (Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)

Two Fiji morph bluestreak cleaner wrasses (Labroides dimidiatus) inspecting the gills of the
bignose unicornfish (Naso vlamingii),  dive site: Archway, Namena Marine Reserve (Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)
This is a handsome wrasse, and in Fiji it often has a vibrant yellow patch on its posterior flanks, where most elsewhere in the bluestreak wrasse’s range it lacks that eye catching lemon color (Fiji endemism and regional color morphs is a whole ‘nother tale to tell in a later post!). The species is pure fish nerd eye candy while holding down that admirable job as a cleaner fish, but it has more, yes, more, to further fascinate.

Normal color phase of Labroides dimidiatus (Photo: K. Ellenbogen)

Fiji yellow color phase of L. dimidiatus (Photo: via Ryan Photographic)

Let’s talk intriguing approach to sex determination: L. dimidiatus, as do many wrasses, have all specimens born as female, with the most dominant individual transforming into the male at the appropriate time. And when that male dies or disappears, then the next female in the hierarchy will ‘ascend to maleness;’ sequential hermaphroditism is the term ichthyologists use to describe this strategy. How slick is that?! Talk about males being in touch with their inner estrogen!

And just because the natural world isn't ever finished working on a theme, the bluestreak has yet another bizarre aspect to its existence—that of imitation not being the most sincere form of flattery. Here's the scoop: A blenny named the false cleanerfish (Aspidontus taeniatus) has so closely adopted (evolved to look like) the distinctive appearance of the wrasse that it is able to pass itself off to a larger fish needing ministration as the genuine article.

The false cleanerfish (Aspidontus taeniatus) | Photo: John Randall, Bishop Museum

Compare the profile of the false cleanerfish to the bluestreak cleaner wrasse in its normal color phase

Once close enough to the host, impressive teeth are used to sever flesh from fins or elsewhere for a meal. The victim is so pained (and outraged?) that it vigorously chases the stealthy blenny back to its wormhole that often acts as a refuge from which to ply its 'despicable' trade! To see the drama unfold underwater is the sort of thing that usually has me talking to myself, which incidentally sounds quite odd with a regulator in my mouth.

False cleanerfish in an abandoned wormhole site. Dive site: Archway, North Save-a-Tack, Fiji
(Photo: K. Ellenbogen)

Check out the teeth in this blenny's mouth! The false cleaner fish has some impressive cutting blades.
Dive site: Archway, North Save-a-Tack, Fiji, Photo: K. Ellenbogen

Bluestreak cleaners do indeed investigate divers when they're passing by the wrasse's station. I've often had one check out my black and gray scuba fins, but never seeming to be fooled for long into thinking that I'm sporting any parasites. No kidding! (I mean the part about me not having external parasites.) I haven't been able to coax them into my mouth though; I won't brush my teeth next time. Hmm, already making the tast list for our next Fiji expedition.

Here's what I'm talking about. Video via YouTube.

Be sure to check out the Pacific Reef Community exhibit in the Tropical Gallery to see the bluestreak cleaner hard at work. Look for the fish's cleaning station down at the East end (left side) of the tank.


Friday, October 25, 2013

Fiji 2013 | Following my ancestors ways

For the past several years, the New England Aquarium has participated in a joint expedition to Fiji, along with the Monterey Bay Aquarium and other conservation-minded groups and individuals. The last expedition took place in Spring 2012

Today's post about the joint aquarium Fiji expedition comes from the Aquarium supporter NAI'A Captain Johnathan Smith.

Three years away from the helm of NAI’A took me on a 20,000 nautical mile journey; I’m now back onboard again with familiar faces, familiar waters and familiar daily activities like the great Fiji diving that make my life feel more normal, and maybe more sensible.

Captain Johnathan Smith aboard the Uto Ni Yalo, Fiji’s drua in the Pacific Voyagers Project
Photos: Pacific Voyagers Project

I’m on watch, so I stroll through the NAI’A salon on my way to the galley to fetch another cup of coffee. My ears begin to hear the conversations where everyone seems to be intently debating the colors and shapes of fishes and invertebrate animals just seen on the dive. I move more quickly and try not to listen to the Latin names they use, because I consider myself a normal diver. We just know it as a blue fish or orange slug, maybe a grouper, a wrasse, a trevally or a crown jellyfish—no need to argue about its Latin names. I chuckle to myself because it’s always that way when the New England Aquarium and Monterey Bay Aquarium team led by the ‘Steves’ (Webster and Bailey) are aboard and diving the Lomaiviti waters and Vatu-I-Ra passage in Fiji.

I last saw Doc Webster when I passed through Monterey in 2011. He gave me and the rest of the Pacific Voyaging crew a personal tour of the Monterey Bay Aquarium; it was incredible. We all loved what we saw; it was the first time that any of us had been to a big public aquarium like that, and for that matter, most of my crew, before this voyage, had never been outside Fiji! Our landing in Monterey was one of many stops on the voyage of discovery aboard the drua Uto Ni Yalo. Our Fijian double hulled canoe was part of the Pacific Voyagers Foundation flotilla of seven, it being the multiple South Pacific country project that focused on raising awareness about our dying oceans, embracing the oceanic wandering ways of our ancestors using their amazing celestial navigational methods, and maybe most importantly, some thorough soul searching for many of us Polynesians.
Fiji Flag fluttering with 5 drua in distance
Sunset somewhere in the Pacific

Arriving in Tahiti while in traditional dress

Fijians honoring the traditions of ocean warriors
Photos: Pacific Voyagers Project

Whale tooth blessing of the druas | Photo: Natalia Tsoukala

This all happened to me at a time when I thought I knew everything about the oceans, after all, I had 21 years of sailing aboard many vessel types, ranging from big cargo ships to the 124’ liveaboard NAI’A which singularly focuses on accommodating serious divers in Fiji.  So I take up this offer to skipper an ocean voyaging double hulled canoe kitted out with only the bare necessities, giving up all electronic navigation instruments and tools.  Gone are the GPS, the radar, the weather reports via satellite radio, let alone the phone calls to family.  Our voyages would take our 80’ drua from Fiji to New Zealand, on to Tahiti, the Marquesas, north to Hawaii, east to San Francisco, down coast to Monterey, and Santa Barbara, stops in Malibu, LA itself, on to San Diego, then Mexico’s Ensenada, Magdalena Bay, and Cabo San Lucas, west through the Cocos Islands, continuing to the Galapagos, and of course, finally back home to Fiji.

Sailing route of the first leg | Chart: Pacific Voyagers Project

Life aboard the Uto Ni Yalo: Bathing in salt water, maintaining course with only a steering oar, no shelter from the sun, sea spray and raging seas, broken masts, shredded sails, constantly being wet, cold like no other I’ve known while sailing the latitudes of the 40s east, it all was much different than my prior life on the water.  It all at times made me wondered how I ever got myself committed to this and whether it was punishment that I deserved. The long, rough voyages made you think a lot about life, how we live now compared to the past, and how our ancestors managed to populate so much of the huge South Pacific expanse.

Floating plastic rubbish of every description fetched up by Uto Ni Yalo crew | Photo: Capt. J Smith

Some of the most powerful images in my head are the enormous rafts of plastics and rubbish, thousands of miles from any land.  But foremost amongst those images are my crew and how proud I am of them: all volunteers, ranging from young teenagers to a retired Fijian Army Major and a diplomat, male and female, all with different backgrounds, all with something special to offer, and all having to learn the sailing methods of the ancestors.  The ‘kids’ were the most transformed; often not sure what to do with their lives in the villages and towns, getting into all sorts of trouble and forming bad habits, some not knowing how to read and write; now full of confidence and sailing skills, and many of them training at the merchant marine academy for careers on the oceans.

Uto Ni Yalo crew and family members | Photo: Fiji Times

Shocking was how dependant we are on electrical devices.  There was no fridge aboard, no entertainment luxuries, food was most often fish caught on a trawling line off the stern. If it was too big to eat, it was let go. We only kept what we could eat and not waste. Rain was a real luxury when and if it did pour down. You appreciated every drop of it after rationing fresh water for drinking, and bathing in salt water for weeks grows very old.

A lot of things we took for granted all of a sudden made everyone realize how ignorant they’d been in leading their daily lives. We all came to realize that our societies can still use and adopt practices of the old ways of living, incorporate them into our modern, high tech world; realizing that the mentality of people must be changed soon, very soon, so the healing of our oceans and the surrounding lands can begin in earnest.

Respect for nature was lost when peoples’ lives no longer depended directly on it. One didn’t have to wait for seasons to plant and harvest.  Fertilizers, herbicides and growth hormones make food for some, easy and cheap to have.  Along the canoe’s way, I talked with shrimp fisherman who caught sharks on the side (finning, of course) to have some extra money in their pockets.  Their major complaint was about recent low shrimp catches, not realizing they only had themselves to blame for upsetting nature’s balance-  sharks eat rays, rays eat shrimp; the sharks are taken away, the ray population explodes, rays eat all the shrimp, and then the fisherman have no shrimp. It’s not hard to understand how these animals depend upon one another, but too many humans are ignorant of these simple relationships.

Pallets of sharks meat

Coming upon beaches with dead sharks littering the sand as far as the eye can see, shocked us all. Our drua took us to places littered with skeletons of whales and dead turtles washed up on beaches. An extraordinary day for us occrred when the Uto Ni Yalo was halfway to Cocos after leaving Cabo San Lucas and we encountered a turtle that had a floating plastic bag billowing from its mouth, and thusly could no longer dive or eat. Clearly the turtle had half-swallowed the very large bag and was now quite buoyant, unable to leave the ocean surface, and was slowly starving to death. A couple of my crew jumped in, wrestled with the flailing and frightened turtle a bit, and then passed the nearly exhausted animal to the remaining crew onboard. After a careful and time consuming extraction, we manage to safely remove the entire plastic bag. We were so happy and emotional about saving this one turtle, all the more moving for us after witnessing the days of environmental damage and sea creature death during our voyage

Olive ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea) after extraction of plastic bag by crew | Photo: J. Smith

The knowledge gained from our experience during the voyage is something that no text book can teach. I am very confident that the movie about our voyage titled Our Blue Canoe will have an impact on everyone who sees it, and will hopefully help considerably spread the message on the importance of keeping the oceans healthy, and hence improve our chances for survival.

So, here we are on the NAI’A diving in some great locations, healthy reefs, abundant animals, good folks doing good things and caring about our oceans.  There’s a lot to worry about out there, but here there’s hope, and maybe it’ll be that way some day where the Uto Ni Yaso took me on the trail of my ancestors.

Watch the movie trailer, read blogs from the voyage and find pictures of the trip Fiji Islands Voyaging Society.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Fiji 2013 | Before and After

For the past several years, the New England Aquarium has participated in a joint expedition to Fiji, along with the Monterey Bay Aquarium and other conservation-minded groups and individuals. The last expedition took place in Spring 2012

Today's post about the joint aquarium Fiji expedition comes from the Aquarium supporter Tally Lauter.

When traveling long distances from the East Coast to Fiji I build in a few days outbound to ensure I do not miss the not-so-often flight to Fiji. That gave me, Bailey and Don some time to hang out in LA for a few days. How else should we spend our time other than to visit aquariums (or as Bailey calls it- conducting industrial espionage), fish wholesalers and other museums?

Entrance to Santa Monica Pier Aquarium | Photo: Bailey

Famous Santa Monica Pier | Photo: Bailey

We went to the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium to see a small but very attractive and kid-friendly aquarium. They have great invertebrate touch tanks, a neat focus tank with a swimming tunicate species and a compact but impressive shark touch exhibit.

Tally and Don meet a seahorse not on display | Photo: Bailey

Touch tank with swell and leopard sharks
(Cephaloscyllium ventriosum, Triakis semifasciatum) 
Photo: Bailey

Invertebrate touch tanks with local invert species
Photo: Bailey

Tally investigates the unusual swimming tunicate Melibe leonine | Photo: Bailey

Don photographs a Garibaldi (Hypsypops rubicundus), California’s state marine fish | Photo: Bailey

We also went to see the excellent Kelp Forest Exhibit at the California Science Center; big windows, a walk through tunnel and an interesting bubble window. The CSC’s Diversity Lab tank area had a clever two-spot octopus display

Kelp Forest Exhibit | Photo: T. Lauter

Tunnel through Kelp Forest Exhibit | Photo: Bailey
Two spot octopus exhibit intrigues Tally and Don | Photo: Bailey

Recently, the new Space Shuttle Endeavor display opened at CSC, and it was impressive.

California Science Center’s newly opened Space Shuttle Endeavour Exhibit. Photo: T. Lauter

After our arrival in Fiji there was a great opportunity to visit Nadi town and check out the open air market. There, exotic fruits and spices are plentiful and tantalize the senses. Many things are new to me and broaden my appreciation for the variety of cultures in our shrinking world. One item I found enticing was the fresh water mussels called kai (rhymes with sky) that are displayed by many vendors.

Kai (freshwater mussels) in Nadi town makete | Photo: K. Ellenbogen
I had a chance to taste them later in the trip and, much to my delight, they are delicious.    We had a chance to interact with some of the local vendors and buy some kava (a pepper root traditional drink) for a welcome gift to the crew of the NAI’A. We ate meat pies from our favorite local bakery and shopped for things needed before heading to sea.

Kai on Tally’s dinner plate at the First Landing Resort | Photo: Bailey

After the ten days on the NAI’A there was the opportunity to decompress (and gas off some of our nitrogen!) before boarding the Fiji Airways flight back to the States. The last days were spent at the First Landing Resort, which happens to be the location where the first native people came ashore to settle Fiji from their druas (Fijian double hull canoe).

First Landing Resort entrance from the road | Photo: T. Lauter

Illustration of a drua under way; they could be 30m long and carry 200 | Image via

First Landing Resort; reportedly where the first Fijians came ashore upon encountering the islands
Photo courtesy: First Landing Resort

Lauren investigates some of the mangrove thickets bordering the resort

The views from the resort’s location are nothing but spectacular. There was good food and fellowship that makes us all want to return for the next adventure in March of 2015.