CEI Presents at the 37th International Sea Turtle Symposium

Annabelle Brooks and Meagan Gary at the 37th International Sea Turtle Symposium

Annabelle Brooks and Meagan Gary at the 37th International Sea Turtle Symposium

Last week the International Sea Turtle Society hosted their 37th Annual Symposium on Sea Turtle Biology and conservation in Las Vegas, Nevada. Annabelle Brooks and Meagan Gary from CEI attended to represent CEI and have presented two talks and a poster during the week. Meagan, who successfully defended her Masters project this last fall, presented her findings on home ranges in juvenile green turtles in the in-water biology session. Annabelle presented a review of the Fibropapilloma disease in The Bahamas in the turtle physiology and health session.

The symposium draws scientists and conservation practitioners from all over the world and as well as talks, experts lead workshop sessions on various topics. Annabelle and Meagan participated in a workshop for utilizing drones in our research and another on the study of epibionts (organisms living on the outside of) sea turtles. Another exciting aspect of congregating with other sea turtle researchers, is the opportunity to get together and share ideas. The CEI team joined forces with the University of Florida Archie Carr Center for Sea Turtle Research, Florida State University and Florida International University to discuss thoughts on monitoring for the Fiibropapilloma disease as well as future seagrass research. Annabelle and Meagan wish to thank our organization and  donors for sponsoring their travels to the productive conference!

A new coral nursery site on Cape Eleuthera

During the last week of March, which was blessed with calm winds and clear skies, the reef team had the honor to collaborate with Stephanie Schopmeyer, a returning visiting coral expert from the Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science. Nearly three years ago, Stephanie took a leading role in establishing CEI’s first coral nursery project, located in one of our most popular dive sites – Tunnel Rock. With over twenty years of experience in coral reef restoration, Stephanie helped the CEI reef team in renovating and expanding the current coral nursery. Furthermore, Stephanie continued to share her knowledge and expertise as she helped the team design and implement a brand new staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis) nursery.

Stephanie Schopmeyer helps the reef team to clean the coral fragments at the nursery site she helped to set up nearly three years ago.

Stephanie Schopmeyer helps the reef team to clean the coral fragments at the nursery site she helped to set up nearly three years ago.

Prior to constructing the new coral nursery, the reef ream had a substantial amount of preparatory work. First, they visited various sites in order to collectively decide on a good location for the new wild staghorn nursery. Once the new nursery site was chosen, the team had to agree on three different wild colonies to collect the respective A. cervicornis fragments from. Stephanie’s professional perspective guided their decision, and three wild colonies were successfully chosen from well known nearby reefs: Schooners, Miller’s Blue Hole, and Bamboo. Forty fragments were collected from Schooners, forty more from Miller’s Blue Hole, and twenty fragments were collected from Bamboo.

Jodie Ball, research technician, collects staghorn fragments from Bamboo reef.

Jodie Ball, research technician, collects staghorn fragments from Bamboo reef.

Once all the fragments had been collected from the wild colonies, the team had to anchor down two PVC trees at the designated new nursery site, Bamboo. To ensure the stability of the PVC trees, the team hammered down two metal rebars (one for each tree), which were attached to the PVC tree via a stainless-steel karabiner. The trees were then vertically held afloat by a submerged buoy. Once the trees were secured, the team used mono-filaments and crimps to attach all 100 wild colony fragments to their respective PVC tree branch. The three different genotypes were color-coded for identification purposes. In total, the newly designed A. cervicornis nursery includes one hundred fragments, three distinct genotypes, and two PVC trees with five branches on each.

Reef team intern, Daisy Buzzoni, attaches staghorn coral fragments to a PVC tree at the new nursery site.

Reef team intern, Daisy Buzzoni, attaches staghorn coral fragments to a PVC tree at the new nursery site.

Reef team intern, Annie MacCarthy, records measurements of the coral fragments at the new nursery site.

Reef team intern, Annie MacCarthy, records measurements of the coral fragments at the new nursery site.

The next steps of this project will focus on monitoring the wild coral populations from which the four collected genotypes came from. The Reef Team will apply AGRRA and FRRP methods by taking measurements including maximum length, width and height so that an ellipsoid volume can be estimated. Additionally, the measurements of the total linear extension will be recorded as well as the total number of branches, apical polyps, partial mortality, and any other identifying factors (bleaching, etc) will be documented.

The newly established nursery serves as part of a network of coral nurseries throughout the wider Caribbean region, with the purpose of propagating a healthy and sustainable stock of staghorn coral for use in coral reef restoration. Furthermore, these corals provide unique scientific opportunities to study the growth and productivity of this threatened species.

*All photos courtesy of Daisy Buzzoni, reef team intern.

Dr. Owen O’Shea visits Bimini Biological Field Station

This past week saw Dr. Owen O’Shea of the CEI Shark Research and Conservation Program travel to Bimini to begin discussions about a new and very exciting collaboration with the world famous Bimini Biological Field Station (BBFS) or Shark Lab. Director of the BBFS, Dr. Tristan Guttridge, hosted Owen for four days as they prepared samples for joint Masters of Science student, Tanja Schwanck, currently conducting her fieldwork at CEI. Her project aims to describe gene flow in southern stingrays, working on the principle that female stingrays form and stay within sex-biased sub-populations, while transient males move among these different sites, acting as conduits for gene flow and connectivity.

Dr Tristan Guttridge, Michael Scholl and Owen at Shark Lab

Dr Tristan Guttridge, Michael Scholl and Owen at Shark Lab

This is one of the first studies of its kind in The Bahamas, and may offer a glimpse into how these fragmented populations, with seemingly little immigration or emigration, can remain genetically viable. The project is also expected to highlight the important role of not just male southern stingrays, but of the dispersal corridors within these groups of small islands. During his visit, Owen was able to join Shark Lab volunteers on ray hunting expeditions, where he was able to assess how their methodologies differ from his own. He also offered a workshop on safe handling and sampling protocols for wild stingrays. Owen was also able to take part in fieldwork with Masters of Science student, Vital Heim, involving the assessment of the movement patterns and behavioral ecology of great hammerhead sharks.

Owen working up rays in a captive pen as volunteers and staff look on. 

Owen working up rays in a captive pen as volunteers and staff look on. 

Owen instructing Shark Lab volunteers and staff on safe handling practices on stingrays.

Owen instructing Shark Lab volunteers and staff on safe handling practices on stingrays.

Owen ended his week with a presentation to Shark Lab volunteers, staff scientists and the CEO of the Save our Seas Foundation, Michael Scholl. He discussed the role of stingrays in the environment and why their study is so important addressing conservation issues in The Bahamas. 

Owen delivering a talk to Shark Lab volunteers and staff

Owen delivering a talk to Shark Lab volunteers and staff

*All photographs courtesy of Michael Scholl, SOSF

Exploring the Exumas

Last week the CEI Elasmobranch Research Team took a trip to the beautiful islands of the Exumas in search of southern stingrays (Hypanus Americanus). This chain of hundreds of small islands and cays is just one of the sampling sites for postgraduate student Tanja Schwanck’s Masters’ thesis project which is investigating the gene flow between subpopulations of southern stingrays across several locations in the central Bahamas. This project requires the sampling of rays in a variety of places, from the creeks of North Eleuthera to the shores around Bimini nearly 200 miles away. Tanja will use the genetic samples collected from the different sites to determine the genetic connectivity between the subpopulations of rays.

The team set off for the Exuma Cays just as the sun was rising and began the near 2 hour journey across the Exuma Sound. About an hour in to the boat ride, they were greeted by a large pod of bottlenose dolphins. Just a few minutes later, someone noticed more dorsal fins poking out of the waves and they realised there were several short-fin pilot whales gliding in the wake of the boat! Everyone was amazed by the huge and graceful mammals but they had to continue to chase the islands they could finally see on the horizon.

They arrived at the chain of islands and headed straight for their first location, Ship Channel Cay. Patrolling the creek, they saw several sizeable Caribbean whiptail stingrays (Styracura schmardae) but no sign of any southern stingrays. The team took the boat to the next island, Norman’s Cay, and circled around the shoreline, inspecting the shallow waters. They came across a large southern ray and followed it in the boat, trying to coax it closer to the shoreline, where they could encircle and catch it. After about an hour of following it, the ray remained in the deeper waters, too deep for the team to stand a chance of catching it. They decided to cut their losses and try another location.

The team take the boat into a lagoon to look for stingrays in the shallows.

The team take the boat into a lagoon to look for stingrays in the shallows.

After lunch they drove north to Long Cay, where stingrays are known to commonly hang out near the shore. Scouting the shallows around the coast of the island, they finally came across a familiar looking diamond shaped shadow near the shore, which they instantly recognised as a southern stingray. The team sprang into action, hopping off the boat and encircling the ray and herding it into the seine net and eventually scooped it into a dip net. They wrapped the tail and barb of the ray, took measurements and biological samples and released it, all within a few minutes. The team watched the ray dart off into deeper water and climbed back on the boat. Tanja and her team returned to campus in time for dinner, exhausted but satisfied with another ray added to the CEI stingray research database.

After spotting a ray close to shore, the team jump off the boat and encircle it in a sein net.

After spotting a ray close to shore, the team jump off the boat and encircle it in a sein net.

Follow the CEI Instagram and Facebook page to stay up to date with more adventures of the Elasmobranch Research Team.

Fishing for science: understanding predator-prey interactions at a bonefish spawning aggregation

This winter, the Flats team along with CEI’s research assistant and graduate student at Michigan State University, Georgie Burruss, wrapped up field work for year two of a three-year study using acoustic telemetry to track bonefish spawning migrations around Eleuthera. The team successfully deployed 73 acoustic receivers and 42 acoustic transmitters in fish from right next to CEI’s campus in South Eleuthera, all the way up to Harbour Island in North Eleuthera. Students from the Harbour Island and Preston H. Albury Eco Club joined the team in the field to assist with tagging bonefish in Half Sound, gaining hands-on research experience.

Students prepare to release tagged bonefish in Half Sound.

Students prepare to release tagged bonefish in Half Sound.

The field season brought many new (and some returning ones as well!) faces to CEI to support the project, specifically fisheries biologist Sarah King from the Illinois Natural History Survey, expert angler Berti Warren from the Fisheries Conservation Foundation, graduate student Jake Rennert from Florida Institute of Technology, and post-doctorate researcher Dr. Liz Wallace and scientist Ben Kurth from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. We hope to see you all again soon at CEI!

Berti Warren watches as Sarah King assists with implanting a tag into a bonefish.

Berti Warren watches as Sarah King assists with implanting a tag into a bonefish.

Ben Kurth catches a bonefish out of a spawning aggregation using a handline.

Ben Kurth catches a bonefish out of a spawning aggregation using a handline.

The team happily poses with a bonefish after another successful field day.

The team happily poses with a bonefish after another successful field day.

In the new year, Georgie started a Master’s program with Michigan State University’s Fisheries and Wildlife department, leaving the beautiful island of Eleuthera for a snowy adventure up north. This project will be her Master’s thesis research. Georgie will be travelling back to Eleuthera to conduct field work during the summer and fall with MSU’s new study abroad program for undergraduates at CEI, as well as presenting project findings at the 8th World Recreational Fishing Conference in Vancouver, Canada and the American Fisheries Society 147th Annual Meeting in Tampa, Florida.

Meanwhile, back on Eleuthera, the project has shifted gears to focus on tagging predators to determine predator-prey interactions at bonefish spawning aggregations using a VEMCO positioning system (VPS) to track fine scale movements. The team, led by Dr. Travis Van Leeuwen, CEI’s senior research associate, successfully tagged 8 blacktip sharks and 2 caribbean reef sharks so far this winter. These predators, along with 14 barracuda tagged last year, will provide insight into how predators interact and forage for bonefish around the spawning aggregation. The team also tagged 13 bonefish out of the spawning aggregation with accelerometer tags to determine energy expenditure during spawning.

A mature blacktip shark is secured alongside the boat before being fitted with an acoustic transmitter.

A mature blacktip shark is secured alongside the boat before being fitted with an acoustic transmitter.

In March, the team downloaded data from all 32 receivers in the VPS array with almost 4 million detections! This data has been sent to VEMCO for processing who will then send us maps with locations of our tagged individuals from across the entire field season. Stay tuned for more information about how sharks and barracuda interact with the bonefish spawning aggregation.

Looking ahead, Georgie will return to Eleuthera this summer to retrieve all 73 acoustic receivers. In the fall, she will focus on visually confirming spawning aggregations at each suspected site as well as tracking the aggregations at night to confirm offshore spawning runs of bonefish. The team will also focus on determining what topographic and habitat features make a good bonefish spawning site to model where these sites might be on other Bahamian islands.

For more information regarding this project and other bonefish work currently underway at CEI please contact Georgie Burruss (georgianaburruss@islandschool.org) and/or Travis Van Leeuwen (travisvanleeuwen@ceibahamas.org).