Friday, May 30, 2014

Belize 2014: The Reef Beckons

Aquarium coral biologist Randi Rotjan, PhD, is in Belize studying changes in the reefs off Carrie Bow Cay. Also from the New England Aquarium, diver Sarah Taylor and aquarist Pete Gawne are part of this year's expedition. Over the next couple weeks, she'll be posting from the tropics, sharing pictures and stories from this familiar spot. Learn about previous expeditions in 2013, 2012, 2011 and 2010.

It’s that time of year again. Spring has (finally) sprung, college semesters have ended, and we’re off to Belize to do some research and monitor the health of the reef inside and outside of a no-take Marine Protected Area (MPA) in Belize. As an unintended side effect, we’ve also shocked our bodies from a cool rainy New England May to a hot, tropical clime.

Carrie Bow Cay (Photo: John Brown | BBC cinematographer)

Our team this year consists of New England Aquarium aquarists Pete Gawne and Sarah Taylor (this is Sarah’s first trip!), Aquarium research scientist Randi Rotjan, and Smithsonian staffers Zach Foltz and Scott Jones. The New England Aquarium and the Smithsonian have been collaborating on a reef MPA monitoring project since 2011, and this trip marks our 7th monitoring trip over 3.5 years.

A loggerhead sea turtle spotted during a previous expedition.

MPAs are an important conservation tool to protect habitat – given the variance and uncertainty of global change, MPAs can serve as a local refuge from stressors that are known to interact with climate-related stressors. Stress from overfishing, coastal development, pollution, and other measures of habitat destruction all contribute to coral reef decline. In 2010, Belize declared a no-take MPA called the Southwater Caye Marine Reserve, which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The main question we are hoping to answer is whether the no-take designation is working (do we see a difference in fish diversity, abundance, and/or biomass inside and outside of the MPA?), and whether or not reef habitat fares differently as a result (do reef corals and other benthic organisms fare better inside versus outside of an MPA?).

A monitoring transects on the Belize Barrier Reef, showing small but healthy corals
amidst healthy reef fishes during a previous expedition.

These are big questions that are trying to be answered globally in MPAs around the world, so we are in good company. Unfortunately, like everything in life it seems, the answers are rarely straightforward. Is the MPA properly enforced? Are there other simultaneous issues (invasive species, disease, etc) that are interfering with MPA / non-MPA signals? Remembering that correlation does not imply causation, scientists must gather large amounts of data that show consistent patterns across time and space in order to adequately assess the impact of MPA boundaries.

After 3.5 years, we have a well-established baseline of reef conditions. We also have honed our protocols. On this trip (as with every trip), we’ll analyze our data and try to assess whether we see differences in diversity, abundance, and biomass of reef organisms inside and outside of the MPA boundaries, and then we’ll try to determine whether those differences can actually be attributed to the MPA, or not.

Along the way, we’ll hopefully make some new discoveries, find some familiar friends (like my favorite Dendrogyra coral colony….), and most importantly: share our journey with you.

More soon! The reef beckons…


Monday, May 12, 2014

Saving the oceans one skateboard at a time: MCAF supports net recycling program

This post is one of a series on projects supported by the Aquarium’s Marine Conservation Action Fund (MCAF). Through MCAF, the Aquarium supports researchers, conservationists and grassroots organizations all around the world as they work to address the most challenging problems facing the ocean.   

This skateboard, named “The Minnow,” has a deck made entirely of recycled fishing nets. The team that produced the skateboard visited the Aquarium earlier this month as part of a tour to raise awareness about their program. From left, David Stover, MCAF Manager Elizabeth Stephenson, Ben Kneppers, Kevin Ahearn and Aquarium Vice President of Conservation Heather Tausig.

Fishing gear that is lost or abandoned at sea, known as derelict gear, is a significant source of dangerous marine debris that entraps and kills untold numbers of marine species including sharks, whales, dolphins and seabirds. Working in Chile, a group of young social entrepreneurs is tackling this problem with an innovative and inspiring approach. Noting that the cost of disposing of old nets often leads to their being dumped in the ocean, Ben Kneppers and his partners, David Stover and Kevin Ahearn, set up collection sites in communities along the Chilean coast where fishermen can dispose of their retired nets for free.

This project, known as Net Positiva, was supported in part by the Aquarium’s Marine Conservation Action Fund (MCAF) as well as the Chilean government, the World Wildlife Fund and in collaboration with Chilean fishermen. The Net Positiva team is taking their efforts one step further by recycling the nets into skateboards, sales of which will help sustain the collection program over the long term and provide employment for local community members. Ben, David and Kevin named their skateboard company Bureo, a word that comes from the language of the Mapuche, the native Chileans, and means the waves.

The Net Positiva team observes artisanal fishermen at work off the coast of Concepcion, Chile. The team’s net collection and recycling program will help to keep large nets such as these from being discarded into the ocean. Photo: Kevin Ahearn.

The founders note that the name, “selected in honor of the Chilean people, represents [our] mission. Just as a wave originates from a disturbance of wind along the ocean surface, Bureo is starting with a small change in an ocean of plastic. Through time and energy, the waves of Bureo will develop the force required to cause real change.”

You can read a Boston Globe article about Bureo here. You can find Bureo on Facebook and Kickstarter.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Bahamas: Night Diving

Aquarium staff recently returned from an expedition to the Bahamas. They've been sharing pictures and stories from their time exploring the turquoise blue waters of Caribbean—complete with pictures, video, conservation notes and a taste of life on board a working boat. 

This final post from the series about a night dive comes to us from Austin, who normally cares for the shorebirds on Central Wharf.

On March 28, we completed the last dives of the trip. We did an evening dive and then a night dive at the wreck of the Sapona, which is a concrete-hulled cargo steamer that ran aground during a hurricane in 1926, and before then was used as storage for supplies of rum and whisky during Prohibition. The Sapona is always a favorite dive spot on our collecting trips.

Interior of the Sapona wreck

My favorite aspect of this dive site was the amazing invertebrates. On the night dive we saw many impressively large sea urchins and sea cucumbers. The hull of the ship was covered in corals and basket stars that are curled up and inconspicuous during the day but unfurl their branching arms at night to capture plankton. The most beautiful coral we observed on the wreck was Tubastrea, commonly called sun coral. This coral has huge yellow-orange polyps which open up at night in order to feed. You can see a fiberglass replica of this coral in the Giant Ocean Tank that looks just like the real animal.

Unfurled Tubastrea with a large urchin seen during night dive 
We also saw this awesome redeye sponge crab climbing on a column in the interior of the wreck. Sponge crabs wear a “cap” of living sponge as camouflage. They cut and shape the sponge and hold it in place with their rear legs. Sponge crabs usually hide under their sponge during the day, so this night dive was a great opportunity to check out this crustacean when it was active.

You will probably notice many white particles in the water in these clips. These particles are living plankton of all sorts that was attracted to the light from our flashlights. We scooped up some of this plankton from the water surface while we on the boat to take a closer look. We saw a fantastic diversity of tiny animals – shrimp, fast-swimming polychaete worms, amphipods and larval fishes. If you look carefully you might be able to spot a larval crab and a tiny pipefish!

The Sapona night dive was a really amazing experience and a great finale to our collecting dives.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Bahamas: Underwater with the divers

Aquarium staff recently returned from an expedition to the Bahamas. They'll be sharing pictures and stories from their time exploring the turquoise blue waters of Caribbean—complete with pictures, video, conservation notes and a taste of life on board a working boat. Today's post follows up on the recent Collecting fish as a team entry.

Responsibly collecting some of the fish for the Aquarium's exhibits requires a lot of planning and teamwork. Before we even arrive in the Bahamas, we procure permits from the Bahamian government, which allow us to take a certain number of fish and only certain species—never endangered species. Then once we arrive on a reef with our permits, it takes a whole team to gently catch the fish we're targeting.

In this video, we were looking for copper sweepers. These small, flashy fish are exhibited in our Blue Hole exhibit with the goliath grouper. Here's a quick look at how it's done.

We also use seining to collect other shallow-water species. Learn more about that technique.

Like scuba diving? Want to take an active role in learning about Caribbean reefs and supporting the Aquarium's efforts to  Learn more about the Aquarium's Bahamas Expeditions and consider joining the divers on a future trip.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Bahamas: Lionfish and plastic

Aquarium staff recently returned from an expedition to the Bahamas. They'll be sharing pictures and stories from their time exploring the turquoise blue waters of Caribbean—complete with pictures, video, conservation notes and a taste of life on board a working boat. 

This post about a invasive species and marine debris comes to us from Austin, who normally cares for the shorebirds on Central Wharf.

Although all of the sites we dove on the trip were beautiful and had a diversity of fish and invertebrate inhabitants, we were still reminded daily of the negative impacts that humans can have on the ocean ecosystem. On nearly every dive we saw several lionfish. Lionfish are native to the Indo Pacific but were introduced to the US Atlantic coast in the 1980s, when home aquarium owners released them into the ocean.

Lionfish lurking

Now lionfish range from North Carolina to South America and have spread throughout the Caribbean in less than five years. Their venomous spines deter would-be predators and they have been documented to consume over 70 species of native fishes, threatening the population levels of these native fishes and the diversity of the reef. There are current efforts to research the spread of lionfish, and to encourage people to eat them in order to reduce their numbers.  Lionfish is a delicacy (only the spines contain venom and these can be easily removed).  We were lucky to try some lion fish ceviche on the trip!  You can find out more about invasive lionfish here.

Lionfish ceviche

We also observed a large amount of plastic pollution on the beaches where we went ashore, even on the uninhabited island of South Cat Key where we seined for needlefish.

Plastic debris in the ocean is a huge problem of which more and more people are becoming aware. Not only is it unsightly but it can be ingested by marine animals (this is a major threat to the health of some sea birds like albatross) or entangle them.

Plastic debris, even on uninhabited islands in the Caribbean

Many plastics that end up in the ocean seem to disappear over time but in fact are still present as tiny particles. The effect of these particles on the food web after they are initially ingested by plankton remains unknown.

Learn about plastics in our oceans:
And explore the issue of lionfish further: