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Researchers travel to Great Exuma to present at the Bahamas Conservation Symposium

IMG_7967In March, Florida State University Master's students Brendan Talwar and Mackellar Violich, and Flats Ecology and Conservation intern Georgie Burruss traveled to Great Exuma to present at the Bahamas Conservation Symposium. The Symposium was organized by the Exuma Foundation, the Elizabeth Harbour Conservation Partnership, the Bahamas Marine EcoCentre, and the Bahamas National Trust (BNT) and hosted by the Exuma Foundation. The idea for the Symposium arose as a way to share scientific knowledge on the years that the Bahamas National Trust Conference does not meet. The Symposium was open to a general audience, drawing in community members of the Exuma Cays as well as local scientists. Catherine Booker (Exuma Foundation/Community Conch) introduces Brendan Talwar (FSU/CEI) to an eighth grade science class at LN Coakley Secondary High School

Brendan Talwar gave a talk on deep-sea sharks, followed by Georgie Burruss’s talk on the Bahamas Initiative bonefish tagging program and their recent bonefish tagging trip to the Exuma Cays, and Mackellar Violich presented on deep-sea diversity, the Medusa project, and deep sea traps.

Through the coordinating effort of Catherine Booker (Exuma Foundation/Community Conch), Brendan and Georgie went on to present at LN Coakley Secondary High School in Moss Town, Great Exuma as part of their Science Week. Head of the LN Coakley Science Department, Mrs. Keniqua Burrows, as well as science teachers Mrs. Musgrove, Mrs. Adderly, and Mrs. Deleveaux, organized a “Science Makes Cents” week for their students to inspire young scientists. Brendan presented to forty 8th graders on deep-sea sharks and isopods. Georgie spoke to forty 10th graders about the bonefish industry and the Bahamas Initiative in the Exuma Cays. They were joined by Nikita Shiel-Rolle, founder of Young Marine Explorers, who spoke to fifty 11th and 12th graders about YME and young Bahamians in scientific fields. The students were very engaged, asking many thoughtful questions about the presentations. The presenters also encouraged the students to pursue programs such as the Bahamas Environmental Steward Scholarship and the Young Marine Explorers After School Program.

The Symposium continued with presentations from Dr. Ethan Freid (BNT) on Endemic Plants of the Exumas and the Bahamas, Nikita Shiel-Rolle (YME) on Building Capacity through Conservation, and Kathleen Sullivan-Sealey (University of Miami) on Islands, Nutrients, and Tourism in Changing Climates: Great Exuma. The Symposium continued with presentations from Erick Mueller (Bahamas Marine EcoCentre) on the waters of Exuma, Catherine Booker (Community Conch) on queen conch conservation, William Hayes (Loma Linda University) on the conservation of the Sandy Cay rock iguana, and Sandy Buckner (BNT) on the iguanas smuggled from Sandy Cay.

Many thanks to the Exuma Foundation for being gracious hosts and to all those that presented at and attended the Bahamas Conservation Symposium: Exuma 2015.

Collaborative research on Exuma will have conservation implications for important nearshore species

Dr. Owen O'Shea releases an adult bonefish. In collaboration with the Fisheries Conservation Foundation (FCF) and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), the Cape Eleuthera Institute (CEI) sent researchers to the Exuma Cays in February to tag and collect genetic samples from bonefish (Albula vulpes) and southern stingrays (Dasyatis americana). The CEI team was comprised of Director Aaron Shultz, Associate Researcher Dr. Owen O’Shea, Research Assistant Alexio Brown, Flats Ecology intern Georgie Burruss, and Sustainable Fisheries intern Adrian Feiler. They were joined by FWC Post-doctoral research fellow Dr. Liz Wallace, and a North Carolina based volunteer and avid fisherman, Chandler White. The researchers spent eight days on Hummingbird Cay, a privately owned island south west of Great Exuma, and two days at the Exuma Foundation on Great Exuma.

Adrian Feiler tags a bonefish with a uniquely coded spaghetti tag.

The focus of the trip was to continue the Bahamas Tagging Initiative in Exuma, which aims to passively track bonefish movement and growth rates throughout the Bahamas. Each fish is tagged with uniquely coded external ‘spaghetti’ and the length of each fish is recorded. This allows the assessment of growth rates and location data once the fish are re-caught. These data can then be used as a powerful tool in understanding the mechanisms of spatial distribution, natural mortality, and factors influencing growth of this highly prized sportfish. The tagging program has been implemented in Eleuthera, Grand Bahama, Abaco, Andros, and the Exuma Cays.

During the tagging event, a small section of the dorsal or caudal fin is taken from each fish to obtain DNA for genetic testing. These fin clips are analysed by Dr. Liz Wallace to determine population connectivity and genetic diversity among bonefish within The Bahamas and wider Caribbean bioregion. Dr. Wallace’s research focuses on conservation efforts, such as in the Florida Keys, where the bonefish population has been in decline over the last few decades. Her research, in collaboration with Christopher Haak (FCF) and supported by Bonefish and Tarpon Trust (BTT), aims to elucidate whether local bonefish populations are self-sustaining or are supported by larvae recruited from other areas in the Caribbean. If local populations are supported by external recruitment, conservation efforts will need a broader focus including protecting bonefish in the areas that are supplying the local fishery.

Great Exuma, The Bahamas

The research team in collaboration with local bonefish guides (Stevie Ferguson, Reno Rolle, Drexelle Rolle, JJ Dames, and Garth Rolle) successfully tagged 254 bonefish and collected fin clips from each. Bonefish were sampled on the West side and North end of Great Exuma, near Hummingbird Cay, and a few fish were also sampled near Moriah Harbor Cay.  Guides and anglers should be on the lookout for tagged bonefish and should report tag numbers, fork length, location, and date to BTT (by phone: 321-674-7758 or email: info@bonefishtarpontrust.org).  Overall, this was a very successful trip that would not have been possible without the support of the guides and conservation organizations in Exuma.

Dr. Owen O'Shea and Alexio Brown secure a large southern stingray

The team were also able to sample southern stingrays and collected morphometric data and genetic samples for the CEI Southern Stingray Research Project initiated by Dr. Owen O’Shea. Stingrays are considered critical to ecosystem function, altering it physically with their feeding behavior and controlling invertebrate prey populations. This species is considered data deficient, so this research aims to gather data on their life history, movement patterns, site fidelity, seasonality, and habitat use. The data collected from these rays will be used to determine genetic connectivity with other populations currently being sampled around The Bahamas, and will provide insight into how habitat fragmentation and degradation is impacting the genetic diversity and spread of this important fish.

During their stay at the Exuma Foundation, the team met with bonefish guides and members of the Exuma community working to expand the Moriah Harbor Cay National Park. Catherine Booker, educational instructor at the Exuma Foundation, is rallying support for the protection of key mangrove areas, which act as nurseries for many fish as well as settling ground for Caribbean spiny lobster (Panulirus argus) larvae. The team was able to spend a day tagging bonefish in this proposed addition to the Moriah Harbor Cay National Park. The area contained many mangrove creeks and large flats; habitats that are essential for bonefish as well as provide protection from predators for many juvenile organisms.

Currently, this area is under threat of development, which would destroy this diverse habitat, critical for so many organisms. Hopefully community support, scientific evidence, and rapid ecological assessments conducted by the Bahamas National Trust will provide the necessary information to expand the Moriah Harbor Cay National Park into these critical habitats.

Financial support was provided the Cape Eleuthera Foundation, Bonefish and Tarpon Trust, and Hummingbird Cay Foundation.

For more information and a small video of this trip please see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IddkcRxsrGk.

Grand Bahama Bonefish Update #2

In October 2014, the Flats Ecology and Conservation Program visited Grand Bahama Island to set out an array of acoustic receivers to track bonefish movements during their spawning season. This was part of an effort to determine aggregation sites and spawning areas. A healthy bonefish being released after surgery.

Justin Lewis (Bahamas Initiative coordinator for the Bonefish and Tarpon Trust) and Malcom Goodman (Research Assistant with the Cape Eleuthera Institute) perform surgery on a bonefish in October, 2014

In December 2014, the project received a substantial equipment grant from the Ocean Tracking Network (OTN), providing an extra 32 receivers for the study array.  The team, consisting of CEIS board member Dr. Dave Philipp, College of the Bahamas professor Dr. Karen Murchie, CEI Research Assistant Eric Schneider and Bonefish and Tarpon Trust’s (BTT) Bahamas Initiative Coordinator, Justin Lewis, downloaded the initial array in January 2015 to determine where the additional receivers should be deployed based on preliminary data.

Out of the 56 fish tagged in October 2014, 19 had been detected in the array.  Movements to date included use of the Grand Lucayan Waterway, along with at least two key areas that appear to be aggregation sites on the south side of Grand Bahama.  Movements to the aggregation sites typically occurred during moon phases during which spawning events normally occur.

Justin Lewis (BTT) and Frederick Arnett (Department of Marine Resources - DMR) inserts an acoustic transmitter into a bonefish in October, 2014.

The team deployed the 32 receivers on loan from the OTN, as well as an additional 3 receivers provided by Aaron Adams of BTT.  The extra equipment combined with the original array means we now have very extensive coverage of the south side of Grand Bahama all the way from the very west end, and down along the various cays on the east end.  A complete download of the array will occur in June 2015.  Updates on the project findings will occur subsequently.

The team is grateful for the support of the OTN.  Not only does our array of receivers allow us to monitor bonefish movement, but additionally, any other VEMCO transmitter-implanted fish can be detected.  In fact, 3 tiger sharks tagged off of Tiger Beach by the University of Miami have been detected at 3 receivers within our array!

An acoustic receiver positioned on a seagrass bed in the Grand Lucayan Waterway on Grand Bahama.

This information has been shared with the researchers and they are also excited about gaining additional information that they would not have had if it weren’t for our monitoring around Grand Bahama.  Continued logistical support by h2obonefishing and North Riding Point Club has also been greatly appreciated.

Pufferfish shine in video contest

What happens to the research done at CEI after the excitement of the field season and the hours in the lab are over? Researchers need to find interesting and accessible ways to share their discoveries with others. Naomi Pleizier, a student from Carleton University, is doing this by showcasing her research on pufferfish at CEI in the NSERC Science, Action! video contest. Take a look at the 60 second video to get a glimpse of one of the emerging projects from CEI, and like and share it to show your support!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uZXA9vjhJA4&feature=youtu.be

Naomi and her team studied several key survival behaviours of checkered pufferfish, a common mangrove fish, to determine whether consistent individual behaviours can be altered by a stress hormone, cortisol. The results help us understand how a resident of these vulnerable ecosystems might respond to natural challenges and stress caused by humans. Follow the link to see research at CEI in action!