Category Archives: Reef ecology

Patch reef survey time!

Last week the Reef Ecology and Restoration team completed the March monitoring surveys of the 5 year reef study around the patches of Eleuthera. The March surveys usually call for thick wetsuit, hoods and hot chocolate. However, the water was particularly warm at 27oC, resulting in the surveys being completed in record time. Dr Jocelyn Curtis-Quick has been leading this study since 2012; she now plans to use this incredibly unique and invaluable dataset to thoroughly examine the influences and impacts that the invasive lionfish have on the patch reef ecosystem.

Every part of the reef is searched for lionfish
Every part of the reef is searched for lionfish

The Reef Ecology team has already begun the process of analysis, and Jocelyn was able to present some of these preliminary findings at the Bahamas Natural History Conference in Nassau earlier in the month. By continuing to spread and enhance the local knowledge within Eleuthera and beyond, the management of the lionfish will hopefully continue to grow.

Removing lionfish from the reef
Removing lionfish from the reef

Of the 16 patches that have been surveyed throughout the study, 8 have been designated as removal sites, and with a highly experienced team we were able to continue our contribution to the culling effort around The Bahamas and wider Caribbean. Stay tuned to hear the full results of our study and a more detailed picture of how the lionfish is making its presence felt around Southern Eleuthera. In the mean time don’t forget, You Slay, We Pay!

Research to protect Eleuthera seahorses

Dr. Jocelyn Curtis-Quick and her team have been assisting Dr. Heather Masonjones with her ongoing seahorse research in Sweetings Pond. Sweetings Pond on the island of Eleuthera contains a diverse array of species, including both seahorses and octopuses. Originally described in the early 1980’s, this pond has remained unstudied over the past 30 years.

The amazing seahorses of the pond (photo credit Shane Gross)
The amazing seahorses of the pond (photo credit Shane Gross)

This type of tidal saltwater pond forms in regions with limestone geologic histories, fed from the ocean through cracks and underground caverns. Depending on the size of these connections and how long they have been isolated from gene-flow, these ponds are well known sites of speciation, with an array of endemic or limited-range organisms, and unfortunately, a long list of species declines. The Sweetings Pond site is part of wider assessment of the inland ponds found all over Eleuthera, led by Dr. Jocelyn Curtis-Quick.

All seahorses found are photographes as their marking can be used to identify individuals
All seahorses found are photographes as their marking can be used to identify individuals

Seahorses are marine fish that have captivated humans for generations. Worldwide, their populations are under threat from over-harvesting for curios, traditional medicines and as bycatch from fisheries. They are also declining because of decreasing water quality of their shallow coastal habitats, and increased use of these habitats through poorly-managed tourism. The impacts of these threats are difficult to measure in seahorses, because they are difficult to study in the wild.  The pond species of seahorses, Hippocampus erectus, is also listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, an international organization dedicated to conservation.

At night a black light shows the tagged fish (photo credit Shane Gross)
At night a black light shows the tagged fish (photo credit Shane Gross)
Lili Wagner finds a baby octopus on the light trap
Lili Wagner finds a baby octopus on the light trap

The team spent two days assessing the seahorse’s use of different habitats and successfully tagged more than 30 seahorses, enabling the mark and recapture technique to be used to assess population density. In order to assess what the seahorses are eating, as there is little to no research on their prey selection at night, the team set out plankton tows and executed gastric lavage procedures on the seahorses. The stomach contents were preserved and will be sent to a lab at the University of Tampa to be analyzed, and the animals were released unharmed back to the exact location where they were originally found. Because of their monogamous mating system, moving animals from their home location can interrupt mating pairs, and make it difficult for animals to reproduce.

Populations of seahorses are rarely as dense as we have measured in the pond, so from a conservation perspective, this would be an excellent choice of location to protect and conserve for future generations.  Dr. Masonjones presented the preliminary findings at the Bahamas Natural History Conference last week.

If you see seashores in the water around Eleuthera please report your sightings on iSeahorse.

Professor Wicksten visits CEI

Prof. Wicksten exploring the inland ponds
Prof. Wicksten exploring the inland ponds

The Reef Ecology and Restoration team welcomed Prof. Mary Wicksten to CEI last week. Prof. Wicksten is a professor at Texas A&M University, College Station, where she works on the biogeography, systematics and behavior of decapod crustaceans. Prof. Wicksten is collaborating with CEI’s Dr Jocelyn Curtis-Quick on the anchialine pond research.

Rare shrim found in the ponds of Eleuthera. Photo credit: Drew Hitchner
Rare shrim found in the ponds of Eleuthera. Photo credit: Drew Hitchner

During Prof. Wicksten’s visit, she got to explore some of the inland ponds and helped to identify deep sea crab species for other researchers at the institute. Prof. Wicksten used her expert ID skills to also identify crabs and shrimp present in the stomach contents of some lionfish. Prof. Wicksten had the opportunity to talk with the young ones from the ELC about crustaceans – inspiring future scientists!

Although a short visit to the CEI, Prof. Wicksten made the most of her time, and even helped to support the ongoing lionfish outreach.  She attended the Blue Seahorse art show, where the Reef Ecology team was increasing lionfish awareness, particularly the importance of removing the lionfish from the reefs and spreading the word that it is a really good fish to eat!

It was a pleasure to have Prof. Wicksten with us for four amazing days!

Nassau grouper spawning aggregation expedition

Nassau grouper is an economically important species in The Bahamas. Due to heavy fishing pressure, there have been marked decreases in their population sizes, especially noticeable during their spawning season. The spawning season takes place during the winter months, from December to the end of February, and the aggregations occur during the full moon. Dr. Kristine Stump from the Shedd Aquarium has been monitoring Nassau grouper in The Bahamas to track their movements to spawning aggregations, as well as to quantify the number of Nassau grouper at these historical spawning sites.

The researchers that took part in the Nassau grouper work in front of the Shedd Aquarium vessel
The researchers that took part in the Nassau grouper work in front of the Shedd Aquarium vessel

This January, the Shedd Aquarium research vessel, The Coral Reef II, travelled to Long Island, to historical spawning sites, with a representative of The Cape Eleuthera Institute on board, to assist Dr. Stump with her research. Throughout the week-long journey, the researchers on board performed dive surveys to quantify spawning stock size at one specific site.  Unfortunately, very few Nassau grouper were aggregating at the site during the times of the surveys; at most 20 were noted on one survey. Illegal fishing was occurring at the time the vessel reached the site, which could explain the decreased abundance of the grouper. Poor weather conditions prevented the researchers from performing surveys on the night of the full moon, so it is unclear if numbers increased during the spawning event.  Continue reading

Lionfish, and conch, and sea turtles, and aquaponics, oh my!

Last weekend, programs from the Cape Eleuthera Institute, including the Reef Ecology and Restoration Team, Sustainable Fisheries Team, Sea Turtle Team, and Aquaponics Program travelled to Governor’s Harbour Homecoming to spread the word about each of their fields.

The CEI team in front of their booth at Governors Harbour Homecoming
The CEI team in front of their booth at Governors Harbour Homecoming

Many people showed great interest in the lionfish and aquaponics displays. They were amazed at the use of plants to filter the fish waste out of water holding tilapia in the aquaponics system, while others who had never tried lionfish fritters are now converts! 

The CEI booth with information on lionfish, queen conch, sea turtles, and aquaponics
The CEI booth with information on lionfish, queen conch, sea turtles, and aquaponics

The Sea Turtle Team and Sustainable Fisheries Team also educated the attendees about the protection of sea turtles through some fun word games, and the life stages of conch through a display with varying sizes of shells, ranging from juveniles to adults.

 

Halloween Spooktacular- Lionfish Treats

The spooky lionfish tank!
The spooky lionfish tank!

On the night of Halloween, the CEI team put on their lionfish costumes and travelled to the Spooktacular event at the Leon Levy Native Plant Reserve in Governor’s Harbour. The team continued to spread the word about the lionfish invasion with spooky red lights illuminating a tank showcasing a live lionfish, and dyed blue, green and red fritters.

Spooky lionfish treats were a big hit at the Leon Levy Halloween event
pooky lionfish treats were a big hit at the Leon Levy Halloween event

Batman, Spiderman, witches and several zombies came to view the illuminated invasive lionfish, and were served the spooky and tasty lionfish fritters. Those who had never tasted lionfish before enjoyed the delicious fish and gave great feedback, stating they were tastier than conch fritters, even when they were green inside! Next weekend the team will be setting up a booth at the Governor’s Harbour Homecoming, and hope to continue our long term goal of seeing lionfish not just at outreach events, but permanently on restaurant menus throughout The Bahamas.

The lionfish team, ready to spook!
The lionfish team, ready to spook!

Last Coral Reef Earthwatch Expedition Complete!

At the end of August, the final “Investigating Reefs and Marine Wildlife in The Bahamas” Earthwatch team arrived at the Cape Eleuthera Institute to conduct fish surveys on the patch reef systems of the Bahamas Banks. This program has been running at CEI for the last four years, and the most recent group of eight eager fish observers had the honor of completing the large data set for the prominent coral reef scientist Dr. Alastair Harborne of Queensland University. The overall study focused on the interaction between mangroves and corals reefs to improve our understanding and management of these systems.

The final coral Earthwatch team
The final coral Earthwatch team

 

Grunts on the reef
Grunts on the reef

The patch reefs off CEI have surprised us in terms of how different they can be as we move around the study area. This is particularly true for presence and numbers of juvenile grunts. During this last field season, patch reefs were resurveyed – half of the sites visited were patches that had previously been found to have an abundance of grunts, and the other half were sites that had fewer grunts present. The goal was to establish information on the site attachment of these grunts. Not only were grunts observed, but the team looked at the abundance and sizes of all fish on the reef.

After many fish identification lessons and sizing practices, the Earthwatch volunteers were both proficient and confident in their skills and able to collect relevant data for Dr. Harborne’s research. Led by Dr. Jocelyn Curtis-Quick and Alexio Brown in the field, not only were the Earthwatchers learning in the water, but they also had nightly presentations on various projects happening at CEI, such as the research on green sea turtles, inland ponds, invasive lionfish, and the accumulation of plastics in our oceans.

 

Bahamian fellow Garelle Hudson
Bahamian fellow Garelle Hudson

At the end of their 9 day expedition and some 23 patch reef surveys later, the team travelled down the island of Eleuthera to explore the Glass Window Bridge, the Banyan trees, as well as the Rock Sound Ocean Hole. To top off their successful week of data collection, the team enjoyed a meal of delicious lionfish at a wonderful local restaurant.

Bahamian fellow Khadaja Ferguson
Bahamian fellow Khadaja Ferguson

All of the Earthwatchers travelled home with full stomachs, back to their respective homes all over the United States, The Bahamas, as well as England, with many hoping to visit the Cape Eleuthera Institute again in the future.

Coral Nursery Update (with video!)

Last Thursday, the Reef Ecology and Restoration team carried out our monthly growth and health checks on the Acropora fragments at the nursery site. After taking measurements on length, number of branches, and number of apical polyps of each fragment, it was found that the majority had grown in length since September. This brings us closer to our long term goal of being able to replant the coral fragments on reefs to increase populations.

To keep the coral as healthy as possible, the team carried out a deep clean, which involves brushing off any smothering algae that can cause coral mortality. Unfortunately, bleaching was seen in several fragments; bleaching is characterised by the coral turning white. This occurs when the algae that lives within corals are expelled due to stress.

One of the main reasons for this increase in stress is a rise in water temperature. We could be seeing a large increase in bleaching because this is an El Niño year. NOAA has declared this year a major bleaching event, only the third major bleaching event on record.  The first global bleaching event was in 1998, during a strong El Niño that was followed by an equally strong La Niña. A second one occurred in 2010.  El Niño years are characterized by changes in upwelling. Upwelling of cold currents is replaced by warmer waters and increases sea surface temperatures. With this in mind, we will keep closely monitor the nursery, and we hope to see continual growth during the next check, despite the El Niño warm waters.

Here is a link to a time-lapse video of the team cleaning the coral nursery!

Educational Programs Team hosts Akhepran International Academy

While all visiting groups are special to us here at CEI, certain ones touch our hearts in unique and unexpected ways. Akhepran International Academy, visiting us for the first time from Nassau, was one group that made a big impact in their short time with us.

Students sit on the beach to hold turtles as the research team takes their measurements
Students sit on the beach to hold turtles as the research team takes their measurements

On Monday August 24, 10 students along with 2 teachers arrived from New Providence and jumped straight into the island school life. They had a jam packed day to orient them to our campus, complete with a sustainable systems tour and awesome day one snorkeling.

The rest of the week had a large emphasis on working with our IMG_5503research teams and discussing the implications of their work on our world. Lloyd Allen, head chaperone and a teacher at Akhepran, has a big vision for his scholars and hoped that in their time here they would see the plethora of career options in sciences and engineering and be inspired to pursue their passions.

Some students have dreams of being engineers. These students really enjoyed learning about our aquaponics system with Michael Bowleg and spoke excitedly about going home and engineering their own aquaponics system at home. Others dream of being marine biologists and, after a morning learning about and dissecting lionfish, want to go back to Nassau and tell everyone they know about this invasive species and get them to eat lionfish instead of more commonly overfished species.

These examples are just the beginning of this group’s studies.

Students assist researchers  studying stingrays
Students assist researchers by helping to catch southern stingrays.

Their curiosity, questions, and positive approach to life made them a joy to spend the week with. By the end of the week many spoke about how their perspectives on the ocean had shifted and they had learned to love the ocean they grew up around even more. One student said, “every time a wave hits against me it’s like a kiss from mother nature” and another admitted that she had fears about the ocean, but that swimming in it and “being one with the fish” showed her she didn’t need to be so afraid.

This was truly a week of growth and inspiration, and even though their trip was cut short by threats of a hurricane, we look forward to this relationship and have hopes to visit their school in Nassau in the future.

Summer interns witness the annual spawning event for the Brown Encrusting Octopus sponge!

On August 7th at three o’clock in the afternoon, while conducting benthic surveys on Ike’s reef, some of our summer interns came across the annual spawning event for the Brown Encrusting Octopus sponge (Ectyoplasia ferox). These common bright orange tubular sponges immediately caught their attention because they appeared to be smoking. When the interns took a closer look the smoke appeared to be stringy neon orange mucus attached to the sponges.DCIM102GOPROGOPR3241.
The mucus filaments contain fertilized eggs that hatch into larvae and settle down on the reef to form new sponges. The Brown Encrusting Octopus Sponge, like most sponges, is a hermaphrodite; meaning they function as both sexes simultaneously. Fertilization takes place within the sponge once sperm makes its way through the water column to an individual of the same species. August is the usual time for the spawning of this species and a number of variables make it hard to predict the exact date to witness this unique event. These sponges are generally found on coral reefs and other nearby areas at depths from 40 to 75 feet, so keep an eye out this month!