Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Bahamas 2014: Leaving Miami

Aquarium divers have just returned from a trip to the Bahamas to collect fish destined for the Giant Ocean Tank. Over the next couple posts, they'll share pictures and information about interesting fish and explain what it takes to transport fish from the Bahamas to Boston. Today's post about setting out toward Bahamas comes from Chris.

After 3 days of boat prep and awaiting the arrival of our trip participants, it's time to get the show on the road. So how actually do we get ourselves from downtown Miami to the Bahamas?

We started here (the white dot in the center-left of the map below) at 7:00 AM, heading down the Miami River and out into the Atlantic Ocean.

About 5 hours later, we were in the amazingly blue waters of the Bahamas near Bimini.

Time to start diving!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Bahamas 2014: Preparing the Boat / Miami Weather

Aquarium divers have just returned from a trip to the Bahamas to collect fish destined for the Giant Ocean Tank. Over the next couple posts, they'll share pictures and information about interesting fish and explain what it takes to transport fish from the Bahamas to Boston. Today's post about prepararing for the big trip comes from Jackie.

Tuesday, November 14th, was a day of preparation. I spent most of the day pulling together the last of my gear that I would need for living on a boat and diving for the next 15 days. The majority of the gear, including all of our scuba gear, had already been shipped to Miami in two 55-gallon barrels. Today I was picking up loose things that I had forgotten to put in the barrels, like dive gloves, plastic bags to capture small shrimp and larval fish and an extra BCD in case one of ours fails. I spent the rest of the night at home packing my clothes and personal gear.

The next day, I went in to work first to put everything together, then made my way to the airport with my duffle bag, a YSI (a device to measure dissolved oxygen in water packed in a James Bond style pelican case) and my fishing rods sticking out of my backpack.

On Wednesday November 15th, our plan was to meet at the airport at 9. Because of the expense and fragile nature of the YSI, it had to be taken as a carry-on, and so did my fishing rods. We had a little bit of trouble fitting our stuff into the overhead luggage bins, but made it to Miami with all of our stuff intact, and a lot of interesting comments from people about how weird it is to take fishing rods on a plane.

We made it to Merrill Stevens Shipyard in Miami and got aboard the Coral Reef II just in time for a soaking rainstorm that began to flood through the doors in the shipyard.

Our home for the next week or so

The southern Florida skies opened up just after we arrived

We spent the rest of the evening getting settled into our cabins and unpacking the barrels of gear.

The main deck salon.  Our cabins are below decks.

On the next day, Thursday, November 16th, we began the real work of getting the system ready for fish. After a quick breakfast, we started up the system, which was actually already filled with water from a previous collecting trip by the Albuquerque Aquarium, but had to be broken down and set up again because we had heard that the fish collected on that trip had broken out with a very contagious parasite upon their arrival in Albuquerque, and the parasite could be living in the system water. We started up the pumps and ran the system, them dumped a bleach bomb into all of the tanks. We let the bleachey water run through the system all day and all night, and in the meanwhile we turned our attention to “The Shed.”

The shed is a giant steel railroad car type container in the shipyard where all of our gear for collecting trips is stored. The shed is packed FULL with things like sump pumps, hoses, nets, catch bags, barrels, transport bags, plumbing pieces and screen lids for tanks. The gear in the shed also belongs to three different aquariums, who each have slightly different ways of doing things and slightly different types of gear.  We spent most of the day sorting through this, finding gear that we need for our trip, putting these things on the boat and finding a safe place to keep them while the boat is underway. What started as a monumental mess, ended up being a fairly organized and usable stash of gear on the boat. Feeling very accomplished, we went out to dinner.

Pulling gear out of "the shed"

After a quick breakfast on Friday, November 17, we added sodium thiosulfate to the system to neutralize the bleach, then after letting it run for a while, we emptied the system. It was important to remove all of the water from the system, so after we drained it as low as the pumps could take it, we got in with buckets and a shop vac.

Even trip leaders get wet and dirty
Taking advantage of the Florida sun while on the clock

The next day, Saturday, November 18, we spent the morning making some last minute creature-comfort preparations for our trip participants and shopping for groceries for dinner. Chris and I made a run to the hardware store for some last minute things like WD-40, teflon tape and zip ties, and then we went to a bait shop for some shrimp and fish to feed to the fish we would be collecting. I also picked up some last minute things like fishing weights that I would need for some of the fish we planned to collect by hook and line fishing. We began welcoming our trip participants on the boat at noon and by suppertime almost everyone who would be staying with us for the next 9 days had arrived.

A quick selfie showing how fun these trips can be (left to right: Sherrie, Jackie, Chris)

Off to the Bahamas in the morning!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Bahamas 2014 | Heading South

The centerpiece of the New England Aquarium is the 200,000-gallon Caribbean coral reef exhibit known as the Giant Ocean Tank. The massive reef soars through all four floors of the building and hosts hundreds of marine animals—from undulating eels and sleek barracuda to lumbering sea turtles and flitting wrasses.

Giant Ocean Tank
This vibrant ecosystem engages visitors not only with its movement and diversity, we also hope to inspire people to take action to protect vulnerable reefs in the wild—places that many visitors may never be able to experience in person.

Divers hand-feed many of the smaller fish in the Giant Ocean Tank

Many of the animals in this tank have lived here for decades. Myrtle the green sea turtle arrived in 1970. Some of the long-living tarpon, permits and jacks—those huge, silvery fish that race around the periphery of the reef—have been here for more than 30 years. But we occasionally have to add smaller fish to the exhibit to maintain healthy population levels. These are common fish we carefully collect by hand in the Bahamas, under special permits from the Bahamian government. Then the extra-special cargo flies up to Boston to undergo a standard quarantine period in our off-site facility. Finally, they are transitioned into life on a new reef—the Giant Ocean Tank!

Aquarium staff diver Chris Bauernfeind | Photo by trip participant Dave Waller

We've just returned from a trip to the Bahamas to collect some fish destined for the big tank. Come along for the journey. Over the next couple posts we'll introduce you to some new divers passionate about protecting our blue planet, share pictures and information about interesting fish and explain what it takes to transport fish from the Bahamas to Boston. It took months of planning and a lot of hard work, but it's an immensely gratifying experience. And the best part is, we get to share some of the beauty of our blue planet with you!

Stay tuned for posts from staff diver Chris Bauernfeind, aquarist Jackie Anderson and even some guest posts from trip participants.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Protecting sawfishes in Mozambique

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.  

Ruth Leeney, who is the director of the Protect Africa’s Sawfishes project and received a grant from the Marine Conservation Action Fund in 2014 to collect baseline information on sawfishes in Mozambique, writes this post.

Sawfishes are some of the most endangered of all sharks and rays. The five species of sawfish are all listed as either Endangered or Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. A recent conservation strategy released by the IUCN highlighted the urgent need for baseline data on sawfishes throughout much of their range—simply put, we know very little about the historical and current distributions of sawfishes. Yet without such information, we cannot implement conservation and management strategies for these unique fishes.

Largetooth sawfish, Pristis pristis (photographed in the Fitzroy River, Western Australia).

This is particularly a problem for much of the African continent. Sawfishes formerly inhabited both the west and east coasts of the African continent, but are now thought to be extinct throughout much of this range. However, in many African countries we do not even know whether sawfish are still encountered and if so, what local threats they face. Research efforts are limited by a lack of resources or expertise, and many African nations must understandably prioritise human health, welfare and education over environmental concerns. Nonetheless, as other nations race to exploit Africa’s natural resources—particularly timber, minerals and fish stocks—the impacts of coastal development, habitat loss or degradation and increased fishing effort all pose threats to sawfish populations.  Given this huge gap in our knowledge, the Protect Africa’s Sawfishes project has prioritized collecting baseline information on the historical and current presence of sawfishes throughout Africa. So far, the project has worked with local partners in five African countries: Senegal, The Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia and, most recently, in Mozambique.

I was perhaps overly ambitious in my aims to travel the length of the coastline and to collect information from fishing communities in each of Mozambique’s six coastal provinces. Mozambique has a coastline of 2,470 kilometers—that’s about three times as long as the coast of California. Much of the northern coast is accessible only with four-wheel-drive vehicles and involves hours of bumping along corrugated, winding tracks. However, thanks to the collaborative spirit of the regional offices of the Institute for Fisheries Research (Instituto Nacional de Investigacao Pesceira – IIP), I was accompanied in each province by local fisheries officers who knew the busiest fish landings sites, acted as translators and could advise on and sometimes even arrange transport and accommodation. I was grateful for their enthusiasm for the project, which would not have been a success without their involvement, and I am already looking forward to working with the various local teams again.

Martinho Padeira, from IIP’s office in Sofala province, interviews a fisherman in Beira’s artisanal fishing harbor.

In Zambezi province, I was lucky to be able to coordinate my work with some monitoring activities being conducted by the regional IIP team and visited some hard-to-reach places along the coast. In villages such as Maquaquane and Therrebuane, we conducted interviews in the shade of cashew, mango and banana trees, under the gaze of children unaccustomed to visitors. On long, white-sand beaches, we waited while the fishermen hauled in their beach seine nets and separated the catch by hand. Nowhere has it been more apparent to me how closely the well-being of entire communities is linked to the fish they catch, which not only provides the primary source of protein for every inhabitant, but also comprises one of the only sources of income in these close-knit, isolated villages.

Fishermen sorting the catch from their beach seine, Zambezi province.

Group interview with the fishermen’s cooperative in the village of Sakone, Zambezi province.

In total, we conducted 206 interviews, covering all coastal provinces of Mozambique. Three-quarters of interviewees recognized the image of a sawfish and had seen a sawfish at least once in their lifetime. The proportion of recent (2010-2014) sawfish catches was considerably higher (26 percent of all interviewees) than has been reported by other studies of this type elsewhere in Africa, which suggests that sawfishes are still present in Mozambican waters—great news for sawfish conservation in Africa and worldwide. Sawfishes are captured by artisanal fishers using various types of gears including deep nets for sharks, beach seines and hand lines. A considerable number of fishermen working on shrimp trawlers had also observed sawfish which had been brought in as bycatch  (accidentally captured) during trawling activities. During our interviews in June 2014, we learned of numerous recent catches, particularly from two areas. These areas will be the focus of future work to verify the presence of sawfishes in Mozambique, confirm the species present, identify localized threats and highlight specific sawfish habitats in need of protection.

In each region where we conducted interviews, we asked about the names for sawfish in the languages of that region. Most Mozambicans speak one or more tribal languages as well as Portuguese, and many fishermen will know the species they encounter only by their local names. Alternative names for sawfish include cachão (in Zambezia province), piilu or mbiru (northern provinces), papopanga or papa-panga (in Cabo Delgado province; ‘papa’ means shark in the KiSwahili language but is also used as a term of respect for older men, whilst ‘panga’ means knife) and salpanga or sarrapanga (southern provinces). These names can be used in future awareness and education campaigns with coastal communities and when encouraging fishermen to report their sawfish catches to their local fisheries officer. We also asked whether fishermen owned any sawfish rostra—the long, tooth-studded saw so characteristic of sawfishes—or knew where we might find them for sale. We found a total of 13 sawfish rostra from two sawfish species, the majority from largetooth sawfish (Pristis pristis) but several from green sawfish (P. zijsron). Both of these species were also formerly documented along South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal coastline, but are now considered to be extinct in that region.

Sawfish rostra from sawfish captured by artisanal fishermen.

In addition to collecting up-to-date information on sawfishes in Mozambique, this project raised awareness within the IIP and among local NGOs of the critical status of sawfishes and of the need to report all sawfish catches. I trained several IIP staff members in sawfish identification and provided sawfish kits, which included a Sawfish Conservation Society species identification guide, data recording forms, a tape measure and a pencil, to IIP staff in every coastal province. Having collected valuable information on the regions where sawfishes are most likely to be found, the next important step for this project will be to sample, using nets and hand lines, in these key areas in an attempt to document the presence of live sawfishes and to confirm the species and age classes present. Funding is being sought to provide fisheries observers with digital cameras, so that they can record sawfishes and other species of conservation concern (such as other shark and ray species, turtles and dolphins) which are inadvertently captured in trawl fisheries. In addition to this research, I am planning a workshop in 2015 with representatives from IIP, the Department of Fisheries, Eduardo Mondlane University, local NGOs and other marine stakeholders, to develop a national conservation strategy for sawfishes. 2015 will be an exciting year for sawfish research in Mozambique!

This study was made possible by grants from the New England Aquarium’s Marine Conservation Action Fund, the Swiss Shark Foundation and the Rufford Foundation, and was supported by the Marine Megafauna Foundation. Many thanks to Paula Santana Afonso (IIP), Ernesto Poiosse (IDPPE), Prof. Guissamulo Almeida, Karen Allen (EWT), Peter Bechtel, Simon Chitsenga (WWF-CARE), Alice Costa, Nick Dulvy (IUCN SSG), Robert and Niamh Leeney, Andrea Marshall, Simon Pierce and the MMF team, Prof. Anildo Naftal, Simon Wearne, Jeff Whitty (SCS) and all the IIP and WWF-CARE staff who assisted with interviews.

Learn how to identify the different sawfish species, and download an identification guide to sawfishes in your region, on the Sawfish Conservation Society’s website.

Updates on the Protect Africa’s Sawfishes project can be found on Facebook.

Project Puffin 8: Reflections on some cool seabirds

This summer, aquarists Austin Brayton and Jackie Anderson camped on remote islands in Maine to assist with Project Puffin, an Audubon Society project designed to restore populations of these clownish little seabirds. In this post, Jackie reflects back on her trip.

June 25:
Reflections on some cool seabirds

I was supposed to leave Matinicus Rock today, but there are some really large waves crashing against the boat ramp, which would create a very dangerous scenario for the small dory that would be rowing myself and my gear out to the lobster boat that would take Austin And I back to Vinalhaven. The owner of the lobster boat had called us on the radio last night to let us know that he didn’t think he would be able to pick me up. I then called my boss to let him know that I would not be back to work today.

Frank Mayer and Aspen Ellis weigh and band tern chicks during a tern productivity study on Matinicus Rock

In case he reads this blog, I was disappointed to not be able to return to work… but secretly, I loved my time on this island so much that I did not want to leave. I had become so connected to the birds I was observing, so wrapped up in their stories; like the tern in nest 5 of my feeding study who would get angry and attack her neighbors, and the group of female eider that were swimming their ducklings in the tidepools in front of my window, and I wanted to stay as long as possible.

Eider ducklings in tidepools

I also loved the people I met here. There is a common thread that runs through people who are passionate enough about wildlife and seabirds to spend their summer (or two short weeks in my case) on a remote island like this that enables us to be great friends. Most of the people who I have talked to about my experience at Project Puffin asked if it was difficult being off the grid, or not having a shower, or using a composting toilet. Those seemed to be very minor inconveniences for the amount of good that came out of this experience.

Razorbills photographed from the researchers' blind

I learned more about seabirds than I had ever known before, and a lot about field work that I had put aside after college, and I am certain that the work we were doing for this project; collecting data that will be used to draw conclusions about the long term population of seabirds, was a far more important use of my time than going to the beach, going out after work, and eating ice cream. So instead of leaving Matinicus rock on June 25, I spent the day checking up on puffin and guillemot nests, doing one more tern feeding study, entering the data from my field notebook into the database, and doing tern productivity.

Leaving Matinicus

On June 26, a gray and drizzly day on Matinicus Rock, the lobster boat picked myself and another volunteer up, then went on to pick up Austin at Seal Island and brought us all back to Vinalhaven. We rode the ferry back to Rockland Maine, where we were picked up by Project Puffin staff and brought back to the Audubon base camp. Austin and I then drove back to Boston, after making a stop for ice cream on our way home.

One last look at Matinicus

And now, in the beginning of November as I am thinking about my Project Puffin experience this summer, I found an article from the end of August about how seabird populations have been negatively affected by warming ocean temperatures in the Gulf of Maine and subsequent declines in the availability of their preferred food fish. The data from this year indicates a pretty successful breeding season, with 75% of the puffins on Seal Island and 66% of the puffins on Matinicus Rock successfully fledging chicks, which was a lot more than last year’s 10%, but not as much as before 2012, with a 77% success rate for all of the islands. This success rate appears to be directly correlated with the cooler ocean temperatures we experienced this year.

Razorbill in the early morning light

Just this month I saw a guillemot from the passenger ferry on my way in to work, (it flew by faster than I could get my camera out), and I have begun to see eider ducks in Boston Harbor. This was a good reminder to me that even here in Boston, we are closer to cool seabirds than you think.

A small taste of what it's like to observe the birds on these remote islands in Maine.

All in all, Maine’s seabirds are important animals to monitor as indicators of global climate change, and as sensitive species who were driven away from Maine by human activities in the 1800’s and early 1900’s, and recently restored and monitored by the Audubon Society and Project Puffin. Their success depends upon a complex web of ecological cause and effect, and on people caring… people like you.

Learn more about Project Puffin  and to live a more ocean- and seabird-friendly lifestyle.


Learn more about what Jackie and Austin did while volunteering with Project Puffin: 

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Project Puffin 7: Razorbill feeding study

Earlier this summer, aquarists Austin Brayton and Jackie Anderson camped on a remote island in Maine to assist with Project Puffin, an Audubon Society project designed to restore populations of these clownish little seabirds. In this post, Austin introduces us to other seabirds (besides puffins)  also studied with Project Puffin on Seal Island.

June 24, 2014 
Matinicus Rock, Razorbill feeding study

Today I got to do my razorbill feeding study. The razorbills on this island all nest in the same vicinity, on the furthest point away from our living quarters. They are also really flighty, and are very easily scared off and away from their nests by any human activity near them. Anytime we have to do any work in their colony, we limit our time there to just 2 hours, that way they are not away from their nests for too long.

Our feeding studies however, where we watch them and note what food items they are returning with and how large each food item is, last for 3 hours. Our solution to this problem is to creep into the colony under the cover of darkness and be situated in the blind before the birds get up and start moving about and fishing. This morning myself and island supervisor Frank Mayer left the lighthouse at 3:35 am to set up in our respective blinds. It was really awesome to see it gradually get light out and see the birds beginning to become active and finally flying in and landing on the rocks with bill loads of fish. Sometimes they had four or five fish at a time!

Aspen Ellis measures the wing cord on a large razorbill chick

A smaller razorbill chick hitches a ride to the measuring station in Jackie's shirt

For this study, we were watching them with binoculars to identify what species of fish they were returning with and estimating the size of the fish based on how long it was relative to the birds beak, for example 1.5 bill lengths. For this study I was really glad to have my aquarium expertise behind me, as I was able to tell the difference between herring, hake, sand lance and Pollack through binoculars as it flew by me in a birds beak (although it does look slightly different swimming around in my tanks).

One problem that I did have is I got so excited when I saw my first Razorbill return with food that I dropped my pencil and it rolled out of the blind. I pawed around trying to reach it through the floor of the blind, but it rolled off the rock and out of reach. I could not risk scaring the birds off to get it so I dug through my backpack and the only writing utensil I could find was a blue sharpie that I had used the day before for marking tern chicks. I had to laugh at myself writing feeding data down with a large marker in a tiny notebook in the wee hours of the morning. At 8 am, the rest of the team joined us in the colony for a razorbill and puffin productivity study. We are starting to see more and more chicks and we are taking weights and measurements on chicks that are easily reachable.

Tern chick in the middle begging its parents for food just after my feeding study

I even caught this awesome video of a razorbill chick in the process of hatching. The hatching process takes them a long time to complete and we watched for less than 2 minutes before leaving so that the parents could come back.


In the afternoon I went out to the common tern colony, to do a feeding study on the terns in my study plot.


Sunday, November 9, 2014

Project Puffin 6: Puffin grubbing

Earlier this summer, aquarists Austin Brayton and Jackie Anderson camped on a remote island in Maine to assist with Project Puffin, an Audubon Society project designed to restore populations of these clownish little seabirds. In this post, Austin introduces us to other seabirds (besides puffins)  also studied with Project Puffin on Seal Island.

June 21, 2014 
Razorbills (and Puffins)

Despite the program’s name, I spent much of my time as a volunteer for Project Puffin working with other seabirds, especially terns (within Audubon, the program is in fact now known as the Seabird Restoration Program). Another seabird that I got to know was the Razorbill, an awesome bird that I think is really underrated compared to its relative the puffin.

Razorbill with a nice catch | Photo: (Uploaded by Markos90), via Wikiemdia Commons

Razorbills have a striking appearance and a really interesting life history.  They nest in rocky crevices or burrows near the sea.  Before the chick can fly and when it is still less than half of its adult size it leaves the nest and goes straight for the ocean, accompanied by its father. They will spend months together at sea as the chick learns how to catch fish. Although Razorbills are abundant in Iceland, in the US there are only about 300 pairs nesting on islands in the Gulf of Maine, so I felt lucky to be able to see them.

I got to see a razorbill and puffin chick close up during monitoring of their nests. We sought out their nesting sites among the rocks along the shore. Certain nests are monitored to see how many potential burrows are occupied, when the chicks hatch, what they are being fed and if they survive to fledging. This information helps researchers to understand how these re-introduced populations are faring and how changes in the oceans due to natural fluctuations or to human influences like climate change or overfishing affect them.  Searching for puffin and razorbill nests, eggs and chicks is called “grubbing” and it is hard and dirty work as you have to lie down and stick your head into the crevices between boulders to find the elusive nest sites.

There are two people grubbing in this photo.

But it is exciting when the search pays off!

The black chick on the left is a puffin and the gray one on the right is a razorbill.

Jackie with a puffin chick on the Matinicus Rock


Saturday, November 8, 2014

Project Puffin 5: Checking razorbills and puffins

Earlier this summer, aquarists Austin Brayton and Jackie Anderson camped on a remote island in Maine to assist with Project Puffin, an Audubon Society project designed to restore populations of these clownish little seabirds. In this post, we join Jackie on Seal Island to check on razorbill and puffin burrows.

June 20, 2014 
Meanwhile on Matinicus Rock, checking on razorbills and puffins

Today we spent the morning checking razorbill and puffin burrows, surveying which burrows had eggs and which burrows had hatched chicks. We also had an exciting event where one of our puffin burrows from previous years, had a puffin in it that had a geolocator attached to its leg. We grubbed the puffin (which means we carefully removed it from its burrow) and removed the geolocator. This is very exciting because, if the data is retrievable from the geolocator, it could provide some incredible insight into where the puffins go when they are not on the breeding islands and could potentially help protect them during the rest of the year.

Matinicus Island Supervisor Frank Mayer holds a puffin while Aspen Ellis removes a geolocator band

Today’s afternoon was also very interesting, as we were joined by a team from US Fish and Wildlife Service. They were installing large antennae on the lighthouse which were designed to download data from transmitters on the backs of terns as they flew by. As they were installing the antennae, we were capturing more terns for them to attach radio transmitters to. The data from this project will help them to determine if there is a change in foraging behavior, meaning how and where they look for food, between when they are on eggs and when they have chicks.

— Jackie

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Tagging sharks in St. Croix

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.  

In this post, Bryan DeAngelis, working on behalf of the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, writes about a shark tagging project in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, that he and Dr. Greg Skomal led.

For scientists who track animals using passive acoustic technology, data downloads are like Christmas morning. This is especially true when the data that comes back is from the sharks you tagged many months earlier. After all the hard work invested to get the tags on the sharks, you don’t know if you have just given a fish a very expensive piece of body art that will never be heard from again or if you’ll provide valuable scientific information that will ultimately improve our ability to

conserve and protect these beautiful animals.  My friends and family who see me off to the Caribbean for these tagging trips regularly ask me:  “What hard work?  You’re off to fish for sharks in the Caribbean!” My response is always the same: “It’s not as glamorous as it sounds.” It typically involves hour after hour on a small boat, getting fried in the sun like a raisin, fishing hook after hook, constantly cutting bait…and smelling like it.  And there is the physical punishment.  Working over the gunnel of a boat in 4-foot seas to surgically implant a small tag in a big fish will leave you with some very large bruises across your sternum. But truth is, I love it.  And one of the reasons I love it is because of the data downloads. 

Passive acoustic telemetry has been a game-changing technology for biologists. It’s a method of tracking animal movement over long periods of time using sound. It works by placing a series of sound receivers in the area of study. Each receiver can “hear” within a range of a few meters to hundreds of meters, depending on the surrounding conditions. The animals to be tracked are tagged with an acoustic transmitter, which periodically sends a unique sound signal. When that sound signal is picked up by one of the receivers, it records the transmitter identification number as well as the date and time it was heard. The battery life on each transmitter is from months to years, essentially giving biologists the ability to track marine animals for very long periods of time. But here’s the catch:  If the animals don’t ever swim within the range of your receivers, you will never hear from them.  And when it comes to sharks, an animal that is typically classified as a highly migratory species, you keep your fingers crossed very, very tightly every time you tag and release a fish with a transmitter.  

A small incision is made to implant the transmitter, and then stitched, prior to release.

Through the generous support of the Aquarium’s Marine Conservation Action Fund (MCAF), my colleague Dr. Greg Skomal and I have recently completed our second year of a pilot study to track sharks around Buck Island Reef National Monument in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. The Buck Island Monument, which was established in 1961 and expanded in 2001, is one of only a few fully marine protected areas in the US National Park System. The 176-acre island and surrounding coral reef ecosystem support a variety of native flora and fauna, including several endangered and threatened species. Recently, a collaboration of multiple researchers was formed to initiate an extensive study on the ecology of multiple marine species over all trophic levels within the Buck Island Monument. These researchers from various organizations are using passive acoustic technology to study a number of species, ranging from demersal fishes and invertebrates to sea turtles and sharks. To streamline efforts, reduce costs and broaden spatial coverage, each team of researchers contributed acoustic receivers to build a massive array (Figure 1), which allows us all to track the movements of these animals over a broader spatial scale. Such an effort would typically cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, but the participation of multiple researchers greatly reduces those costs. Our work ensures, and will continue to ensure, that sharks are incorporated into this ongoing multi-species coral reef study, which is one of the first of its kind.

A shark returns to the reef immediately after being tagged

The value of apex predators to coral reef communities is becoming more apparent. Scientists increasingly understand that apex predators, like sharks, exhibit tremendous top-down effects on our coral reef ecosystems. For example, the absence of sharks may actually cause coral-dominated reefs to convert to algae-dominated reefs. As a result, major initiatives to protect and conserve sharks through the implementation of sanctuaries are being considered in some parts of the world. However, there is very little understanding about how to effectively implement such strategies for the greatest conservation impact. For example, many of the ecologically important Caribbean shark species utilize entirely different habitats during different stages of their life, and therefore will be exposed to different threats with different rates of vulnerability. Also, there is very little understanding of residency time, home range and site fidelity for sharks in this region. Without a better understanding of these relationships between habitat use, species and life stage, implementing conservation strategies such as sanctuaries and Marine Protected Areas may be limited in effectiveness.   

In 2013 and 2014, we acoustically tagged 20 sharks representing four species (Figures 2, 3). We have had two data downloads spanning more than a year since then … and we did not get coal in our stockings.  The results have been really exciting! Of the 20 sharks tagged, only one was never heard from again. In total, we have recorded more than 37,000 detections. While it’s still very early and a lot more tagging and analysis has to happen, we are very encouraged by the preliminary data.  Most sharks exhibited strong site fidelity to the Buck Island monument (Figure 4). 

Detection history plot of two juvenile lemon sharks tagged in 2013.  The data demonstrate strong site fidelity and habitat preferences within the Monument.  These two sharks have used this marine protected area exclusively for over a year.

Also, the data are revealing valuable insights into habitat use within the monument by the different species and age classes of sharks, and the rates of movement outside the protected waters of the monument.  Ultimately, we want to provide resource managers and communities with science-based information that will help them to implement the most effective conservation strategies for sharks.  While doing our part to conserve and protect sharks is what keeps Greg and me involved in this work, I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I also get the excitement and anticipation of a new Christmas present whenever a new data file shows up in my Dropbox.   

Bryan DeAngelis (foreground), working on behalf of the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, and Dr. Greg Skomal, of Massachusetts Marine Fisheries, led the acoustic tagging study of sharks in St. Croix, which was supported in part by MCAF.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

MCAF project gets big investment from Patagonia

Thanks to the efforts of three conservation entrepreneurs, a Minnow may help save the ocean. In this case, the Minnow is a fish-shaped skateboard made from recycled fishing nets by Bureo Skateboards.

The Minnow, as seen on the Bureo website

The Bureo team, David Stover, Ben Kneppers and Kevin Ahearn started this project in Chile to keep derelict or discarded fishing nets out of the water where they could entangle and kill countless marine animals. Instead of becoming deadly drifters in the ocean, these retired nets are being turned into a great new product, the profits of which can sustain the recycling program over the long term and raise awareness of marine debris worldwide.

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 New England Aquarium is proud to have helped launch this project with support from its Marine Conservation Action Fund and is thrilled to see that the huge success of Bureo’s “Net Positiva” program has now attracted a seed investment from Patagonia.

“Bureo is not your typical startup – they’ve invented an incredible recycling program by rallying the fishing industry in Chile to turn plastic ocean waste into a great product,” said Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario. “We’re investing in Bureo’s vision to scale their business to a global level and make a serious dent in the amount of plastic that gets thrown away in our oceans.”

Patagonia’s investment comes through its $20 Million & Change fund, which they launched in 2013 to help innovative, like-minded startups bring about solutions to the environmental crisis and other positive change through business. Or, in other words, to help entrepreneurs and innovators succeed in “working with nature rather than using it up.” Read more in Patagonia's media release.

Here's the Bureo Team with some quick thanks for the Aquarium’s support getting their project off the ground:

Congratulations to the Bureo Team on their well deserved recognition and support from Patagonia. We are looking forward to seeing this great idea spread across the globe!

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Elect to hear MCAF ocean heroes speak at the Aquarium on November 4

The Aquarium is honored to be hosting Pew Marine Fellows and grantees of our Marine Conservation Action Fund Gill Braulik, Ph.D., and Rohan Arthur, Ph.D., for guest lectures at 7 p.m. on Election Day, Tuesday, November 4, 2014.

Dr. Braulik will tell the story of her 12 years working against the odds and often in hostile environments studying endangered Indus River dolphins that are subject to a myriad of threats, from construction of mega-dams to intensive fishing to heavily polluted waters.

To read about Gill Braulik’s MCAF-supported study, click here.

Dr. Arthur focuses his research on coral reefs and the uncertain future they face due to threats such as overfishing and climate change. He will string together narratives from Indian Ocean reefs to build a case for incidental conservation where the goals of reef resilience emerge as happy accidents of apparently unrelated community or economic processes.

To read about Rohan Arthur’s MCAF supported coral reef resilience study, click here.

To register for the lecture go to