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Lionfish outreach at Wemyss Bight Homecoming

Tasty lionfish fritters being prepared On October 10,  the CEI team headed to Wemyss Bight Homecoming to spread the word about the lionfish invasion. The team was armed with a large batch of lionfish fritters to give everyone the chance to taste these invaders.  The booth grabbed lots of attention from a large range of age groups, enticed by the live lionfish in a tank and the smell from the fritters! Most people had the perception that lionfish were poisonous and wanted to know if it was safe to try the fritters. The misconception that lionfish are poisonous is a large problem facing the management of the invasion, as it reduces the demand for lionfish!

After educating people that lionfish were in fact venomous (therefore the meat contained no toxins) and extremely tasty, the fritters were a hit!  Earrings made from lionfish fins were also on show, enabling us to increase awareness surrounding the lionfish jewellery market, another great way to increase incentive for the removal of the invaders from reefs. The team will be continuing to attend events like these in the future, passing on knowledge and changing people’s opinions on lionfish.

The team at the CEI booth


Oregon State University's final field season at CEI

Dr. Mark Hixon’s PhD students from Oregon State University returned to CEI for a fourth summer of invasive lionfish research. The lionfish team- Alex, Kristian and Lillian


As part of a long-term project, PhD student Alex Davis, and her field assistant, Kristian Dzilenski (from the University of Rhode Island), observed the home ranges of lionfish on large reefs in order to understand whether different types of habitat affect whether lionfish frequent certain areas of a reef and/or leave a reef altogether.  In addition to this continued monitoring, she added an observational and experimental study on the bicolor damselfish (Stegastes partitus) and their interaction with lionfish.

Alex at work examining the tunnels of love

This study was comprised of three components. First, she mapped the location of and tracked growth and abundance of bicolor damselfish on the same large reefs where she monitored lionfish movement. Second, she placed small PVC tubes with tracing paper inside of them called “Tunnels of Love” (TOLs) on the reefs, which allowed her to monitor egg production of the damselfish and determine if proximity to lionfish influences egg production. Third, she conducted a “model bottle” study to see if lionfish affect damselfish behavior.  Each damselfish was exposed to an invasive lionfish in a clear plastic bottle, an empty bottle (for control), and a native predator, egg predator, and food competitor, each also in a bottle. The behavior of the damselfish was recorded, and a comparison of how the damselfish react to the lionfish versus the native fish and empty bottle will help us understand if damselfish see lionfish as a potential threat.

Damsel fish guarding its tunnel of love

Lillian Tuttle is another PhD student from OSU, who visited CEI for 5 weeks this summer.  Last summer she discovered that invasive lionfish will eat cleaner gobies, small but ecologically important reef fish that pick parasites off of other fishes.  But when lionfish eat cleaners, the lionfish hyperventilates as if it ate something super spicy!  She conducted a lab experiment that discovered that lionfish quickly learn to avoid the cleaner goby, meaning that this goby is one of remarkably few native fish that lionfish WON’T eat!  But what about native predators?  Must they also learn not to eat the cleaner goby, or are they born with an innate understanding that cleaners are friends, not food?  Lillian returned to the lab and found that native graysby grouper will eat the cleaner goby and hyperventilate, just like the lionfish.  But graysby are slower learners than lionfish, continuing to strike during subsequent exposures to the goby.  With these kinds of friends, who needs enemies?  It’s no wonder the goby has evolved a defense to makes them distasteful!  Now Lillian is collaborating with chemical ecologists to identify the toxin that makes her gobies “spicy,” and she plans to defend her PhD in June 2016.


We wish the both Alex and Lillian a fond farewell and the best of luck with their Ph.D. write ups!

Students from Simon Fraser University continue their research on the invasive lionfish in Eleuthera

Three months ago, the Cape Eleuthera Institute (CEI) welcomed back Simon Fraser University (SFU), and their 2015 field team of seven researchers.  Based in British Columbia on the west coast of Canada (with two more collaborators joining them from the University of Bristol, UK), they made the trip down to Eleuthera to continue their research on various aspects of the lionfish invasion in The Bahamas. From acoustics to nutrient dynamics projects, the summerwas a dynamic one for SFU, filled to the brim with scientific escapades. And the most important thing they’ve learned? Every problem can be solved with cinder blocks and cable ties. Field assistant Emma Atkinson and Fiona Francis ''discuss'' logistics while repairing one of Fiona's cages.

May kicked off with an exciting collaboration between the SFU team and Brendan and Sophie Nedelec from the University of Bristol that delved into the effects of lionfish on the acoustics of a coral reef – are reefs with lots of lionfish perhaps quieter than those with fewer or no lionfish? To tackle this question, the team needed more than keen eyes, and their ears certainly weren’t sharp enough to pick up on any differences. Sophie and Brendan came down equipped with a hydrophone, accelerometer, DJ-like switchboard, and a lot of cords that were loaded onto the boat and brought out to patch reefs to take sound recordings during the day and at night (when lionfish are typically hunting).

So what exactly do coral reefs sound like? Well, kind of like frying bacon! It was pretty magical to listen to the cracks of snapping shrimp complimented with the periodic grunt of a fish swimming by. Sophie and Brendan, along with two members of the SFU team, departed at the end of May, but the remaining five researchers were kept busy for the remaining two months, pursuing their questions surrounding the lionfish invasion.

Fiona Francis and Nicola Smith roast up some lionfish for bait!

Nicola Smith came down to Eleuthera this summer seeking to answer questions surrounding both the lethal and non-lethal effects of groupers (native predators) on lionfish. In other words: (1) are groupers eating lionfish (lethal), and (2) even if they’re not necessarily a direct predation threat, is it possible that their presence has an indirect, fear-induced effect on lionfish (non-lethal)?  In their efforts to address the first question, Nicola and the team could often be found collecting grouper stomachs from the fishermen around Cape Eleuthera. These stomachs will be dissected to see what the grouper are eating, and if there are any lionfish in there!

To look into the non-lethal effects of grouper on lionfish, we kicked off the summer by catching 40 lionfish, and giving them each a unique UV tag to identify them. After these lionfish were distributed across 12 patch reefs (of varying grouper densities), the team conducted dawn and mid-day behavioural surveys for the remainder of the summer. These surveys required (very) early mornings, but by the time the team was in the water at 5am surrounded by bioluminescence, they were pretty happy scientists.

Adrienne Berchtold maintains laser focus as she herds parrotfish into the binky net

Do prey fish learn to recognize lionfish as a predator with a hungry appetite? If they do, are their antipredator behaviours effective against lionfish? Adrienne Berchtold, an MSc student, spent the summer answering these questions. Her project required catching parrotfish off of high lionfish density and low lionfish density patch reefs throughout the summer. Why the density difference? Adrienne is interested in whether parrotfish from high density reefs have perhaps learned to recognize lionfish as predators and as such are more effective at evading them than parrotfish from low density reefs that may not recognize lionfish as predators and are more susceptible to predation.  Adrienne and the team exercised laser concentration and perfect silence as they observed parrotfish behaviour in response to lionfish and grouper (a native predator) during behavioural trials conducted in the CEI labs.

Fiona Francis is interested in nutrient dynamics in tropical marine systems. Fiona spent the summer quantifying how fish aggregations can influence primary production by providing essential nutrients for seagrass and algal growth. To do so, Fiona and the team created 24 cages filled with varying densities of grunts and measured seagrass and algal growth around them. Using 120 cinder blocks, endless yards of mesh and more zip ties than one can count, Fiona and the team created some beautiful “grunt condos”! On days when she wasn’t switching grunts in and out of cages or collecting tiles for processing, Fiona could be found taking over the boathouse with coolers, fish, and a whole lot of Ziploc bags! Part of her project continued from her work last year at CEI involves measuring the nutrients that different species of fish excrete, and to do this she incubated individual fish in bags of seawater for a short period of time. By taking water samples before and after incubation, she is able to look the amounts of phosphorus and nitrogen that each fish excretes. Fiona can then look at the relative nutrient contributions different fish species make to coral reefs. The biggest challenge for the team came when they had to figure out how to measure excretion from a lionfish without them puncturing their bag (hint: it involved A LOT of buckets!).

Back in Canada now, the team is excited to dive (pardon the pun) into their data, and answer the questions they came to CEI with 3 months ago! Field season 2015 was a busy one for SFU, and they couldn’t have pulled it off without the fantastic support of everyone at the Cape Eleuthera Institute – thanks!

Record sized lionfish captured in Eleuthera

The Slayer Campaign has been a huge success at the Cape Eleuthera Institute this year, and we're well on our way to setting a new record for the total catch this season. The initiative provides the perfect opportunity for local fishermen, while also removing invasive lionfish from the reefs. Here at CEI we always make sure the fillets are passed on to our kitchen staff so that the taste can be shared throughout the community. Record 44 cm lionfish

The true spearing skills of our local fishermen were recently highlighted by the size of one lionfish in particular, whose total length reached a rather impressive 44 cm. You may remember we recently set an official record here at the Cape Eleuthera Institute with a 42 cm fish. So, when this new record breaker was laid before us on the dissection table, we decided to submit the numbers (and photo to prove it!) to the wider international community of fellow lionfish slayers. We can now proudly announce that our own 44 cm lionfish is the new official record for the whole Bahamas. Great work Dennis Johnson and Leonardo Butler for slaying this fish!

If you're curious, the world record is currently held at 47.7 cm, so we're not too far behind! Check out the website for more details.

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

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

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.