When people call or write, I’ve found that most are interested in what i do everyday out in the field. So, I thought i would elaborate a little.
Right now the gradstudent I am working with is researching the effects of lionfish density on an entire reef. Primarily looking at the recruitment of native fishes and observing how their numbers change in the presence of lionfish. This is basically a bigger version of his studies from previous summers which involved surveying many patch reefs with a single lionfish on them. This new experiment presents a couple challenges including the transport of over 100 specimens, identifying each individual lionfish, and keeping the high density reefs high and the low density reefs low. To make this experiment possible I usually help out with three main jobs: Collecting, Clipping, and Counting
During the collection phase of getting this experiment ready was an exciting process. Everyday the team would go out armed with hand nets, huge coolers, buckets, puncture proof gloves, and scuba gear. Our mission was too collect lionfish from sites that were to be low density and transport them to the high density sites. It took about a week to complete entire reef searches of all the sites and to collect the lionfish that were there. At one point we had approximately 40 plus fish in the boat all at once. That’s alot of venomous spines in a very confined area.
After collections, next step was to find a way of identifying each fish once we placed them in their new homes. We did this by clipping specific dorsal spines making sure to give different combinations to each individual. This process puts everyone on the boat at a much greater risk for getting poked. One person measures the fish while someone else records it. The recorder then tells the person clipping which spines to cut while the person measuring holds the lionfish down on the boat deck. Once the spines are clipped a portion of the tissue is collected and preserved in ethanol as a genetic sample. Spines are disposed of in a sharps container and the entire process starts again with the next fish.Things can get pretty dicey when a lionfish starts floppin around on the boat deck while in the middle of clipping a spine. To stay as safe as possible everyone dealing with the fish wears puncture proof gloves. Lionfish have venomous spines both along their back and undersides. We record the dorsal clips of each fish before releasing them onto the high density reefs.
Just recently we have been going out to each of the experimental sites to check on how the lionfish treatments are holding. We remove any lionfish from the low density sites and transport them elsewhere; this is the easy part. When it comes to the high density sites, each fish we see has to be counted and their dorsal clip recorded. This can get pretty confusing when trying to differentiate between 15 lionfish in a single hole. The next time we visit these sites, we won’t be counting the lionfish but instead the native populations to see if the results of high lionfish densities are as predicted.
For the past 2-3 weeks I’ve been collecting, clipping, and counting lionfish. I get to scuba dive every day and each time I go down, I swear I see something new. I’ve found that what I like most about this job is the creativity involved in trying to make an experiment work. It is important to be flexible because you never know what surprise mother nature has in store for you next.