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Daily Update April 6, 2012

Each research group is continuing to make progress in preparation for our group introductions on Saturday. Introductions are short PowerPoint presentations where each project answers the question: Why does our research matter? Of course being in deep water sharks is super cool. We get to study different shark species using The Medusa – a high-tech video camera designed to dive up to 2000 feet underwater, lent to us by Edith Widder at National Geographic. But what’s even cooler about my research project is how little humans know about what I’m studying!

At home, whenever I was given a research paper or project to do in science class, there was a definite ending point and answer to the project. A hypothesis was set up for us, and in order to get an A on the project, we needed to correctly prove the hypothesis. In deep water sharks, we don’t even have a hypothesis. The project is purely based on exploration of deep water – a place rarely experienced by humans.

As I was recording data from a video I was watching on Tuesday and identifying as many species as I could, I realized that my project actually meant something in the world of science. The data sheets I was so meticulously filling out were going to be kept in records, not graded and thrown out when I cleaned out my binder. It’s so amazing to know that I’m sixteen years old and already have the opportunity to take part in a real research project. The Island School has made me so empowered to make a difference on Eleuthera, in science, and at home.

Recreating a Historical Shark Research Project

[slideshow] The joint CEI and University of Illinois shark research team just returned from the second of four, 2 week field expeditions to a shallow bank known as “the bridge” that connects the southern tip of Eleuthera to the northern tip of Cat Island. The first expedition went out in November 2011. The historical project is re-creating a study from a dataset detailing the diversity and abundance of shark populations in The Bahamas that took place over 30 years ago. Back then it was conducted by Captain Steve Connett and the crew of the R/V Geronimo from St Georges, Rhode Island. The current study is conducting surveys identical to those performed by Captain Connett and his crew 33 years ago, and has already discovered some very interesting results. In the original dataset, 96 sharks from six species were captured during 25 scientific longline sets. In just 12 sets, we have already caught 84 sharks from three species! While the recent study has encountered a lower diversity of species, the species dominating the catch remains the same. In the original dataset, tiger sharks represented 54% of the catch, and Caribbean reef sharks represented 33%, however, in the modern surveys Caribbean reef sharks and tiger sharks appear to have switched places, representing 67% and 31% of the catch, respectively. This is especially interesting in relation to the Bahamian ban on longline fishing instated in the 1990s, as Caribbean reef sharks, which are thought to be less migratory in nature than tiger sharks, might be benefitting from the indirect protection. Conversely, tiger sharks are more migratory in nature, and the benefits of the ban may be more limited.  These results are still preliminary but with two more expeditions planned for 2012 and 2013 a much clearer picture should evolve in by the end of the project.

Introducing CEI Research Assistants Jason Selwyn and Mike Piersiak!

My name is Jason and last semester I came to CEI as an intern with the Lionfish program. While working here I got to work on things ranging from catching deepwater sharks to installing new netting on the aquaculture cage to performing monthly surveys looking at the impact of lionfish on reef fish populations. I also got the chance to act as a teaching assistant for the lionfish research class at The Island School and teach students the scientific method and how to investigate ecological questions. After my internship I decided to take the opportunity to come back to CEI as a research assistant. I still do some of the same things (data collection in the field), but I also gained many new responsibilities. I moved from a teaching assistant to a full-blown co-teacher for the lionfish research class. I am also conducting an independent project on the topic of my choosing to investigate something about the marine world that surrounds us here at CEI.

My name is Mike Piersiak and I came to CEI last semester as an intern with the Shark Research and Conservation Program. My main focus was to gain as much knowledge as I could regarding not only my specific area of interest (sharks), but also knowledge about the other research projects taking place here. Perhaps the biggest benefit of being an intern was learning about life as a field biologist outside the confines of a classroom and benefiting from the experienced staff members.

After my internship expired, I chose to stay on as a research assistant and assume more responsibilities than the more transient, short term ones I had as an intern. As I am hoping to perform a master’s thesis in the next year or so, I found that the role of a research assistant here is much more similar to that of a masters student in the responsibilities as well as the experience gained. I am no longer associated only with the shark program, but rather, I will be performing my own project as well as mentoring interns through their time here. Assuming more long-term responsibility as well as managing my own personal project are things that I know will benefit me when I begin applying to a masters program and writing my research proposal.

Aside from the academic benefits of my role as a research assistant, I also teach at The Island School as well as mentor interns throughout their time here. I am the co-advisor of the lemon shark research project and I teach a research class twice a week that includes field sampling, data analysis, and presentation of findings at the end of the semester. Mentoring interns involves helping develop a group project (which will be undertaken over the course of their time here), running weekly intern meetings, helping to acclimate them to the institute upon arrival, and overall well-being over the course of their stay here.

CEI at the Abaco Science Alliance Conference

Last week members of the Cape Eleuthera Institute attended the 5th Abaco Science Alliance Conference. Every two years Friends of the Environment host this conference that showcases research being done on the areas of natural history and environmental science of Abaco and The Bahamas. This two day event was held in Marsh Harbour and addressed a wide range of subjects, from cave formations to migrating birds. CEI’s aquaculture manager, Marie Tarnowski, presented on the development of the Sustainable Aquaculture Program at CEI and Annabelle Brooks, Research Manager at CEI, presented findings on lemon shark abundances in mangrove creeks around South Eleuthera. CEI’s Flats manager, Liane Nowell, presented a poster that focused on bonefish handling practices and the bonefish tagging program while Josh Shultz, Aquaponics manager at CEI, presented a poster that focused on developing aquaponics in The Bahamas. This was the first time anyone from the Cape Eleuthera Institute had presented at the Abaco Science Alliance. All attendees from CEI had a great time not only learning about other facets of research in The Bahamas, but also sharing our own novel research and making great connections. Representatives from CEI look forward to attending future Abaco Science Alliance Conferences.


CEI November Shark Expedition

[slideshow] The Geronimo, an experiential education vessel operated by St. George’s School from Newport, Rhode Island, under the direction of Captain Stephen Connett, conducted shark research cruises from the early 1970's through to the mid 1990's throughout the western Atlantic. From autumn 1979 through to spring 1981, regular seasonal surveys were conducted in Bahamian waters focusing on a shallow bank known as "the bridge" that connects the southern tip of Eleuthera to the northern tip of Cat Island. The data resulting from these surveys, representing a snapshot of Bahamian shark abundance from over 30 years ago, have never been rigorously analyzed or published. Edd Brooks, manager of the Shark Research and Conservation Program at CEI, is collaborating with Stephen Connett and Jeff Stein (University of Illinois) to recreate these surveys over the next two years, with the goal of identifying potential shifts in the diversity, abundance and demographic population structure of sharks in the North East Exuma Sound over the last 30 years. The first field season took place earlier this month and Edd, Jeff, and Stephen successfully completed surveys of the bridge with the assistance of two Bahamas Environmental Stewards Scholars, Ann Marie Carroll and Brandon Jennings, Stephanie Liss (former CEI shark program intern and graduate student at University of Illinois) and Christopher Koch. Christopher, an experienced captain and diver, has supported the Shark Research and Conservation Program since his daughters, Hanna and Melanie, studied at The Island School in Fall 2006 and Fall 2008, and offered to return to Eleuthera once again to help on this exciting expedition. Just goes to show that IS alumni aren't the only ones that can come back to The Island School and CEI--parents can, too!