Lionfish Derby 2017: Conservation and Education!

A group of volunteers from WAVE Foundation and Newport Aquarium just returned from a conservation trip to Sarasota, Florida. Newport Aquarium Dive Safety Officer, Diver LC  shows us the importance of the Lionfish Derby.

What is a lionfish derby? This is an event that was put together by REEF and hosted at the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium in Sarasota, Florida. During this one day event on July 8th, volunteers from WAVE Foundation at Newport Aquarium and staff from Newport Aquarium set out to remove as many lionfish from the ocean as possible.

Rich_Carey lionfish at little dutch boy.img_assist_custom-399x251

Lionfish are a venomous fish whose native home is in the Indo-Pacific. Photo Courtesy: REEF

I bet some of you are wondering why 18 people from an aquarium would want to travel 972 miles to remove a beautiful fish from the ocean! Lionfish are a venomous fish whose native home is in the Indo-Pacific. In the 1980’s, it is believed that some people with lionfish as pets released them into the Atlantic. Now, this invasive species population has exploded and they are taking over the habitat and food that the native species need to survive. Their habitat range is huge! Lionfish can live as shallow as the shoreline and as deep as over 1,000 feet and can live in water temperatures from 50 to 90 degrees! Not only that, but each lionfish can produce 2 MILLION EGGS IN A YEAR! They are sexually mature at 1 year and can live for around 30 years – that’s possibly 60 MILLION EGGS from one single female lionfish in a lifetime!

Scientists believe we will never stop the lionfish invasion; the best that we will ever be able to do is control the problem. That’s what we set out to do – to help control the problem! (It doesn’t hurt that they just so happen to be tasty too… more on that later).

Lionfish Derby group photo

Here is most of the WAVE Foundation at Newport Aquarium/Newport Aquarium crew at Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium after the Captain’s meeting the night before the Lionfish Derby!

At the Captain’s Meeting, we were educated on lionfish biology, safe handling, treatment, and the rules of the Derby.

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We learn that through lionfish derbies, institutions like REEF will weigh and measure each fish and dissect the stomach contents of each fish. This gives scientists an idea of how well the fish are thriving, and also how many different types of animals they prey on.

The next morning, I joined 11 divers and set off with the wonderful crew at Blue Water Explorers. Everyone there was very helpful, friendly, and well educated on Florida’s ecosystem.

Ready to dive

Six snorkelers set out on their own to different locations and some of them saw barracuda, crab, reef fishes, and one even saw a manatee!

Each diver got to experience two dives in different locations in the Gulf. Some of us saw grouper, barracuda, rays, and many beautiful reef fishes.

We captured every lionfish we saw!

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After a long day of diving and snorkeling, most of us catch some z’s, relax on the beach, and grab a bite to eat at the St. Armands Circle in Sarasota.

The next morning, an educator from Mote takes us to a bay area for a Field Study. We aren’t just on a conservation trip, but an education trip too!

Field Study group

Group photo, getting ready for our Field Study. Our conservation trip is also educational!

Here the educator is teaching us all about Florida ecology in the bay and then she sends us in the water with nets to see what we can catch.

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The educator took a few of the best specimens to examine and put them in little Tupperware containers, so that we could get a better look. We caught whelk, sea stars, pinfish, pipefish, toadfish, and a sole. After the educator answered all of our questions, we released the animals back to their habitat.

After the Field Sampling, it is off to the Lionfish Derby Festival!

Lionfish Derby Festival

At the Lionfish Derby Festival. Jen and Matt turn in their lionfish to get measured and scored. Let’s see how they do!

At this station, a biologist is dissecting each fish and collecting the stomach contents to get DNA identification later on in a lab. One of our very own biologists assisted in a dissection!

Lionfish dissecting

We’re always learning. During the scoring, one of Newport Aquarium’s biologists assisted in a lionfish dissection!

 

After scoring, we went inside for the lionfish food contest. Five local restaurants made different lionfish dishes that will later be vote on by the tasters (a.k.a. us!). Of the dishes, there are raviolis, tacos, garlic toast, fried rice, and even a dessert all with lionfish. If you ask most of us, the garlic toast was the best!

lionfish food contest

Our “taste testers” Kathy, Diver Jon, and Erin, sample some of the lionfish dishes.

A representative from Whole Foods in Florida said it’s hard to keep up the demand for lionfish, which is a good problem to have! You can help if you are in Florida- go to www.myfwc.com for a fishing license to legally catch and sell lionfish to restaurants in Florida.

And now we wait for the awards ceremony!

If you think about it that is a potential 480 million baby lionfish that could have been produced by those eight fish. Thankfully, they were removed from the reef they were causing harm to!

Not only did we do our part to remove harmful lionfish and learn about Florida’s ecology during the Field Study, but we also picked up beach trash in our free time.

Reusable bag on beach

‘Picking up trash on the beach is more enjoyable than picking up sea shells.’

I would like to share this email from one of our volunteer divers, Mark:

“Early this morning, a local name Bob stopped me for a brief conversation. He thanked me for removing the trash today. I noticed that Bob also had a reusable bag and he stated he gets up every morning to collect the trash on the beach. He stated it is great to see people like you (I pointed to the WAVE Foundation on my bag) and your organization picking up trash. Bob left me with a fantastic quote… ‘Picking up trash on the beach is more enjoyable than picking up sea shells. It’s a good feeling knowing you doing something to help and start your day out right.’”

Conservation starts with you and sometimes it is as easy as picking up trash that you see and sometimes it involves driving 972 miles and diving to 70 feet to capture venomous lionfish!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

World Water Day at Newport Aquarium

NEWPORT, Ky– Today is World Water Day!

World Water Day was created in 1993 and is coordinated by UN Water—the United Nation’s branch concerning all issues related to freshwater. The day is meant to spread awareness about freshwater and to encourage actions to ensure safe water for everyone—including fish!

Here at Newport Aquarium, water is a huge part of what we do. In fact, we have more than one million gallons of water here in our tanks!

Water Story

We share a “Water Story,” with signs welcoming guests to exhibits. Guests will go on a “journey” of sorts, as they discover diverse ecosystems, the source of our planet’s water and threats to the world’s water.

When guests visit, they learn about the important role they play in conservation and helping keep our water clean. They’ll also learn what we can do to help preserve our most precious resource – water.

Let’s take a behind-the-scenes look at how we make that water safe for our marine animals.

Water Recipes from around the World

One million gallons is a lot of water! And our animals can’t just live in any old water.

According to Cameo VonStrohe, Water Quality Specialist at Newport Aquarium, “It really is ‘world water’ here at the aquarium. We have animals from all over the world, so we have to mimic water from all over the world!”

Cameo

Water Quality Specialist Cameo VonStrohe started at Newport Aquarium as an intern in 1999, while studying biology with a minor in chemistry at NKU. She didn’t always know she wanted to work in the water lab of an aquarium—although animals were always part of the equation! She first dreamed of becoming a veterinarian, but eventually discovered that she loved the laboratory.

How do we do this? It’s a process! First, when the city water comes in, it gets filtered through carbon to take out things we don’t want in our water—chemicals that are added for people, like fluoride and chlorine.

Then we break out our water “recipes” to match each aquatic environment that our animals represent. Our biologists and engineers make our saltwater using a unique recipe that includes sodium chloride (better known as table salt!) and nine other salts.

Filtration systems and weekly testing keep the water clean and safe for both animals and divers.

Testing the Waters

VonStrohe tests water from all of the tanks at the aquarium in the Water Quality Laboratory at least once a week. She conducts what she calls a “full run” of four tests on each water sample:  salinity, pH, ammonia, and nitrite.

Refractometer and pH Test HM

To test for salinity—the amount of salt in the water—VonStrohe uses an instrument called a refractometer, which looks like a small telescope and uses light and a tiny scale inside to measure the amount of salt in each water sample. pH testing measures how acidic or basic a water sample is. VonStrohe uses the results of the tests to adjust the tanks to suit each animal.

The goals for each test vary by tank, because each tank simulates a different aquatic environment from around the world. For example, the big 385,000 gallon saltwater shark tank has salinity levels mimicking the ocean, and requires a pH of above 8. But in the Shore Gallery, the water is brackish, meaning it’s a mixture of fresh and saltwater.

In nature, the nitrogen cycle transforms toxic ammonia created from animal waste to nitrite and then to nitrate thanks to the help of some good bacteria. “Everyone thinks bacteria are so horrible,” VonStrohe said, “but they are actually essential to keeping animals healthy!”

Water Lab

Ammonia is created naturally by animals, but it’s toxic to them. The water samples in these test tubes turn different colors depending on their ammonia levels. VonStrohe uses these results to adjust the water going into the tanks.

In an aquarium, this cycle is helped along by people like VonStrohe and machines like the shark tank’s denitrification unit. This machine has three big tubs where tank water is cycled through different chemical reactions that eat up nitrites. Then the machine returns the water to safe levels before sending it back into the tank.

Nitrite Test

VonStrohe conducts four different tests on water samples from all of the aquarium’s tanks each week. One of these is to test for nitrite in the water. “The more pink the sample turns, the more nitrite is present!” she said.

Sometimes, VonStrohe performs more involved testing on the water. Microbiology tests check for tiny organisms and bacteria, and a machine called the atomic absorption spectrometer uses an open flame and beams of light to measure the levels of certain elements in the water.

Spec 2 Water Lab

This atomic absorption spectrometer uses light and an open flame to measure the levels of elements in the water samples. VonStrohe likes to tell people that this is the same type of machine that is used on crime shows like NCIS!

 World Water all year round

Here at Newport Aquarium, it’s World Water Day every day of the year!

A lot of behind-the-scenes water testing, filtering, and cleaning is done by our dedicated staff to ensure our aquatic friends from around the world feel right at home here in Newport, Kentucky.

Cameo Water Lab

All of our water is filtered with carbon and specially made using a recipe of salts to match water environments from around the world!

 

 

 

Midwest shark scientist begins groundbreaking research on secret lives of sharks

By: Nick Whitney, Senior Research Scientist

We announced last fall, the arrival of Dr. Nick Whitney at Newport Aquarium. Read more here: Newport Aquarium announced Renowned Shark Scientist, Nick Whitney, joined the Newport Aquarium team.

From the time I was a young kid growing up in Michigan I knew exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up: a garbage man. What could be better than riding around on the back of a truck all day, wearing whatever you want, and playing your music at full blast?

As I grew up I tried various other jobs: I umpired softball but was always getting screamed at by half the people (the half that knew the rules). I worked construction for a while but accidentally shot my boss in the hand with a nail gun (he handled it well). I worked in an aquarium store but got fired for missing too much work (spring break trip to Florida).

With all of these career failures during high school, college seemed like a logical choice for me. I was intrigued by the work of Dr. Jeff Carrier, a professor at nearby Albion College (Albion, MI), who was studying sharks in the Florida Keys. A shark scientist in the Midwest? What a concept!

I had been fascinated with sharks all my life, and my experience in the aquarium industry (including breeding some endangered species in a series of tanks in my bedroom), made me the closest thing to a marine biology student that this professor could find at a small liberal arts college in Michigan.

Jeff took the time to meet with me and eventually invited me to come to Albion and help him with his shark research. It took me about half a second to accept this invitation, and as an undergraduate I spent three summers capturing, tagging, and tracking nurse sharks on their mating grounds in the Florida Keys. I had the time of my life – no one screamed at me, there were no nail guns, and my boss was the one sending me on spring break trips to Florida.

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Nick Whitney tags a nurse shark while on a tagging exhibition  in the Florida Keys, as an undergrad at Albion College. Photo Credit: Dr. Jeffrey C. Carrier

I learned how to handle myself on the water and how to handle sharks without getting bitten (most of the time). I also learned science skills that made me a good candidate for graduate school at the University of Hawaii.

Working in Hawaii for 8 years and Florida for another 7 after that put me on the front lines of shark research, and in the process I started learning how to use a new type of tag called an accelerometer.

These tags use the same sensors found in Fitbits, smartphones, and video game controllers to reveal fine-scale details about the secret lives of sharks. I’ll talk more about these cool tools/toys in an upcoming post.

It’s now 2017 and you can do whatever you want from almost anywhere! Take it from a shark scientist working for an organization in Boston, MA (New England Aquarium) living in Cincinnati, OH, working in Newport, KY, who still does much of his fieldwork in Florida. It sounds complicated, and it took some time to set up, but so far it’s fantastic.

My research now focuses largely on what happens to sharks after they are caught and released by fishermen. Our tags allow us to determine whether the sharks live or die, and how long it takes them to recover and start swimming normally again.

I’m also involved with exciting research on the behavior of sea turtles and other species, and all of my work involves a heavy logistical component. By that I mean we often have to design and build new tag packages for different projects. So I spend a lot of time brainstorming ideas on how we can combine different tags, how we can attach them to animals, and how we can get them back.

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This is one of the things I am excited to work on with my new colleagues at Newport Aquarium. I now have easy access to a number of different sharks and rays (and other species) just 20 minutes from my house. We will be taking advantage of this in the coming months by testing a number of different tag packages and attachment styles, some of which you may see on animals when you visit the aquarium.

The whole goal is to figure out the best way of attaching these tags so that they will stay on the animals without inhibiting them. This takes a lot of trial and error, so don’t be surprised if most of the tags you see are in various stages of falling off the shark. That means we’re learning!

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Photo Credit: Rob Nelson, UntamedScience.com

I’ll also be helping the biologists at Newport Aquarium to formalize and publicize some of the research they have already been doing over the past several years. This includes some groundbreaking work in breeding and rearing shark rays that reminds me a lot of my work with mating nurse sharks in the Keys. So exciting!

Now my kids get to come to Newport Aquarium almost weekly and are blown away by the place. They try very hard not to admit that their uncool dad has a cool job, but once they start walking through the exhibits they go bonkers. My 2 year old wakes up in the middle of the night and says, “Go see Dory?”

They may grow up to be garbage men, or umpires, or construction workers, or most likely some career that doesn’t even exist today. But if they decide to be shark scientists, they have every reason to believe they can do that from here, or anywhere in the country.

 

 

 

Renowned Shark Scientist Joins Newport Aquarium

Newport Aquarium Takes Research Efforts to Next Level 

NEWPORT, Ky. — Thanks to a partnership with New England Aquarium, Newport Aquarium has created a new Senior Research Scientist position. Dr. Nick Whitney, Ph.D. is the new researcher working with the two institutions, and is now in residence at Newport Aquarium.

“This partnership speaks to the reach of the aquarium. We are now expanding our scope and commitment to wildlife conservation through leading-edge shark research,” said Eric Rose, Executive Director at Newport Aquarium.

Dr. Nick Whitney

Dr. Nick Whitney, new Senior Research Scientist

The opportunity for a dedicated research position presented itself when Dr. Whitney relocated to Cincinnati after more than seven years with Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida. He then joined the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at New England Aquarium, and thanks to some great collaboration with these leading institutions, Dr. Whitney will work in residence right here at Newport Aquarium.

“I’m looking forward to taking research and conservation efforts here at Newport Aquarium to more of a national and international level. I’m excited to join this team of dedicated biologists and build upon their impressive research efforts that have the potential to improve animal care and field conservation around the world,” said Whitney.

Whitney’s research uses high-tech tags called accelerometers (the same motion sensors found in smartphones and Fitbits) to measure fine-scale movements of animals to study their behavior and answer questions that can’t be addressed through traditional tags. His current research with New England Aquarium focuses on whether sharks survive after being caught and released by fishermen.

At Newport, Whitney looks forward to contributing to ongoing research around the Aquarium’s groundbreaking shark ray breeding program, developing and testing new types of shark tags and attachment methods, and helping to increase the conservation impact of this research.

“We are fortunate to have the talents of Dr. Whitney on staff. He will also be supporting the animal husbandry team by leading our own in-house research, then publishing our original research in leading journals and publications,” said Eric Rose.

Dr. Whitney has conducted research on sharks, sea turtles, and other species and has appeared on the History Channel, Discovery Channel, and National Geographic Channel among others. He has worked with the conservation group OCEARCH to tag adult great white sharks off of Cape Cod, and his research has been supported by a variety of funding sources, including the National Science Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Geographic Society.

For more information, visit NewportAquarium.com or call 800-406-FISH (3474).

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Newport Aquarium, named one of the top U.S. aquariums in 2016 by Leisure Group Travel, and voted the No. 1 aquarium in the country by USA Today’s 10Best.com in 2012, has showcased thousands of animals from around the world in a million gallons of water since 1999. Named a top U.S. aquarium by US City Traveler and Destinations Travel Magazine in 2014, and also by Travel Channel in 2013, Newport Aquarium is a Herschend Family Entertainment company and an accredited member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Newport Aquarium is open to the public 365 days a year and is located across the Ohio River from downtown Cincinnati at Newport on the Levee.

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