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).