2016 AAUS Lee Somers Internship – Final blog!

This is my last blog! During the 8th week of my internship I was finally able to do some scientific diving! I drove from Savannah, GA to Pensacola, FL where I met up with some folks conducting lionfish trapping research. Dr. Steve Gittings from NOAA National Marine Sanctuaries designed a non-containment trap which will hopefully be used in the commercial fishing industry to catch lionfish from depths too deep for recreational scuba spearfishing. Spearfishing is currently the only way to catch lionfish which means that the lionfish in shallow waters are being culled. However, the fish in deeper waters are still able to reproduce and repopulate the shallow reefs consuming a lot of small fish and invertebrates. Steve has been working to create a trap that can be deployed, attract lionfish, and catch the fish only as the trap is pulled up. The trap is comprised of a Fish Attraction Device (FAD) inside a frame with a curtain net. Our first task was to assemble four of the curtain traps for deployment.


Dr. Steve Gittings, Alex Fogg, Dr. Scott Noakes and I along with Bryan and Anna Clark, the founders of Coast Watch Alliance worked until late Sunday preparing the traps.  Coast Watch Alliance provided us with lodging on Pensacola Bay and coordinated with Escambia County to transport the traps to an offshore site approximately 18 miles offshore.    During the following week, we spent 3 days diving off the Pensacola, FL coast deploying and monitoring the traps. Our dive site was in about 110ft of water and there were 4 chicken coops which had been sunk by fishermen to attract fish. There were 3 coops grouped together, and a single coop about 50ft away. On the first dive we counted about 100 lionfish on the 3 coops and 50 on the single coop. We deployed 4 traps next to the 3 coops: 2 traps within view and 2 traps about 100ft from the first two that could not be seen from the coops.


Overall, the traps were very effective. Throughout the week we “caught” about 65% of the lionfish at the site. Instead of bringing the traps back to the surface, Alex caught the lionfish associated with the traps by spearfishing. Since the traps are non-containment traps until they are pulled out of the water, we visually inspected the traps for potential bycatch and found none. We noticed that the fish were attracted to the traps immediately, but the frame and FAD were too close together and the lionfish were mostly around the trap, rather than inside of it. However, this was considered a great first run of the full-sized traps since it pulled the lionfish away from the reef site. Steve has been working with smaller versions of the traps in Little Cayman for a couple of years. Several new design modifications are being considered and will be tested on the next trip to Pensacola. My advisor, Dr. Scott Noakes, was also recording the noises near the 3 chicken coops using a hydrophone. He is hoping to identify some of the in situ noises that lionfish make to better understand how the lionfish communicate and what attracts them to the reefs. I truly enjoyed this dive trip! It was incredible to work on lionfish research with this group of scientists.

Additionally, during our time in Pensacola, we met with various people to promote the research and the consumption of lionfish. We met with Fred Garth from Guy Harvey Magazine to explain how these traps could be transformed into a commercial fishing device. We also met with Edible Invaders, the company that created Lionfish Dip, which is being sold in stores and restaurants in Pensacola, FL. Humans are considered the only predator to lionfish in the Atlantic, so it is important that consumers know that this is a safe fish to eat, even though its spines are venomous. Also, by creating a demand for this fish, it will drive removal of lionfish from the reefs where they are decimating the native fish and invertebrate species populations.


My last two weeks at Skidaway Institute of Oceanography were relatively mellow. I continued to work at the UGA Marine Extension Service Aquarium (MarEX Aquarium). Most of the work an aquarist does involves feeding fish or cleaning up after them. The MarEX Aquarium focuses on education, but they are also involved in some research as well. I cleaned various tanks while working there. Cleaning the tanks involves siphoning out about 60% of the water and using a vaccum siphon to clean the gravel without removing it. The fun part of tank cleaning is getting to redecorate the tank after it is clean. I have included a photo of the seahorse tank after I cleaned and redecorated it. I was also able to weigh the one year old loggerhead turtle, Lefty. The turtles are fed based on their weight, which is why it is important to monitor their growth. There are two different methods of feeding in the aquaria, broadcast or target feeding. Broadcast feeding is when the food is sprinkled throughout the tank for the fish to eat and target feeding is when food items are given to a specific organism. Usually target feeding is done by sticking the food on the end of a pole and placing the food directly in front of the organism, which is how the gar, lobster, eel, terrapins and lionfish were fed. Other methods involve using tongs, which is how the turtles eat, or by training the organism to come to a tray to eat, which is how the bonnet head shark was fed. I really enjoyed feeding activities at the aquarium, but sometimes the fish that are target fed are picky and will not take the food and that can be frustrating. My sister came to Savannah for the last couple of days of my internship and The MarEx Aquarium allowed her help with some behind the scenes tasks. I am really thankful that I got to work with Devin and Lisa at the MarEx Aquarium this summer; it was a lot of fun.

My sister and I drove back to Colorado on the 7th of August. This internship was not what I had expected and I learned that diving off the coast of Georgia can be difficult due to sea conditions and boat availability.  However, I did get an excellent opportunity to experience coastal living and participate in several marine related projects at Skidaway and MarEx.

I am looking forward to presenting about this internship at the AAUS 2016 Symposium in Rhode Island! I will be starting a Master of Marine and Environmental Affairs program at the University of Washington in a couple of weeks. I am very grateful for this opportunity through Our World Underwater Scholarship Society and the American Academy of Underwater Sciences!


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