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October 2005 Vol. 31, No. 10   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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RV Coral Reef II, The Bahamas

Fish Collecting with the New England Aquarium

from the October, 2005 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver,

We are steady on a course, steaming at ten knots through the Florida Straits, headed to Cay Sal Bank. Everyone aboard is asleep except my watch-mate, the captain, and me. With luck we will be anchored at the Sistine Chapel by breakfast. There, we will collect fish and invertebrates, but not for sport or livelihood.

I was on the bridge thanks to a report in the January 2005 Undercurrent, that the New England Aquarium would be having a fish collecting expedition and needed working participants for its 10-day April voyage. The price was a largely tax-deductible $3,800 (air included) to cover the cost of collecting live specimens for the Aquarium. I called Holly Martel Bourbon, the aquarium's senior aquarist/diving safety officer and trip coordinator, who explained the duties of the participants. I then sent several e-mails verifying my qualifications and commitment. Participants from the Boston area displayed their skills in the aquarium's Giant Ocean Tank, while others sent Holly instructor's endorsements certifying their competency and fitness. I was approved to join eight other participants on the Coral Reef II owned by Chicago's Shedd Aquarium.

I saw the Coral Reef II for the first time at the gritty Merrill-Stevens Dry Dock in Miami. The air-conditioned, 85-foot, vessel has 11 passenger berths in mostly two-person cabins, with two good sized comfortable bunks, a sink, and storage space. The boat has four heads and four showers, and a large salon where shipmates can watch a movie, look at slides, or chill out -- but only after the chores are done. She's a unique research vessel, with specialized holding tanks, into which filtered seawater is pumped and recirculated. Built in 1984, the boat has the latest navigational and communication wizardry. A large stern dive platform supports two dive ladders and an onboard compressor supplies air, but no Nitrox -- collected fish and long bottom times just don't go together.

Two experienced captains were on board, John Rothchild and Lou Roth. Captain John had been with the Shedd Aquarium for 25 years and knows the Caribbean intimately. He could be counted on to give friendly advice, tell a good joke, or effortlessly guide us through the waters he calls home. Captain Lou was the "go to" guy to get answers for any questions. Chef Charles Julien ensured we ate well. The breakfast menu included breakfast burritos, frittata, scrambled eggs, smoked salmon, and fruit. Lunch was eat-on-the-go, but included seafood salad on croissants, sautéed chicken breast, burgers, fries, Philly cheese steak, chowder. Dinner had dishes like crab Rangoon, smoked fish, bruschetta, spinakopita, conch fritters, and crab cakes.

The cruise took us from Miami to Bimini and down to the Cay Sal Bank. We averaged three dives a day in 79F water (50- 100ft vis) in a chilly, windy and rainy April. We collected at Rainbow Reef, Atlantis, South Turtle Rocks, and the wrecks of the Rio Miami and the Sapona, as well nearer to Cuba, particularly the Big Blue Hole, the Sistine Chapel and Silversides. At the Big Blue Hole I saw a couple reef sharks, a huge turtle, and a spotted eagle ray sharing the reef. Unfortunately, I had little time to observe. We were on a mission and I had to turn my back to the parade of pelagics and seduce a lightningquick bluehead wrasse. We did manage a fun stop at Water Cay for some recreational snorkeling and "cliff" diving from the 20-foot high arch over an enclosed natural pool.

Besides collecting fish and regularly acting as the day's safety observer, we participants helped feed the fish, clean the tanks, and count and catalog the catch. Each of us took a two-hour night watch while the boat was underway, and set and cleared tables at mealtime. As Captain John said in his initial briefing, "This ain't no live-aboard." It was work, but if you love learning, conservation, and the ocean, this is THE trip.

The fish collecting pros were three Aquarium staffers -- Holly, Dan Laughlin, and Joe Masi -- who showed how to collect, nurture, and transport the animals to avoid injury to both diver and fish. Their creed was to minimize the stress on the fish as they continually underscored the ethics of care. Each dive began with a comprehensive briefing that included the descriptions and behaviors of animals we sought. For example, some fish move more horizontally while others swim upwards to avoid the divers, knowledge that helped us position our nets. In the end, we collected more than 300 fish and 70 invertebrates, getting approximately 90 percent of the animals on the Aquarium's "wish list."

Working in teams, each diver held two, one-foot square vinyl nets. Attached to the BC was a vinyl bag to contain fish until we surfaced. Fish are fast and agile and we are, well, not. But speed is not what catches fish. Excruciatingly slow movements do. Slowly and systemically corralling the fish by closing in around them and blocking their escape is the idea. Rather than bringing the net to the fish, the idea is getting the fish to swim into the net.

As I descended toward the reef at South Turtle Rocks, I saw a huge school of brown chromis rocking in the surge twenty feet away. Fish on the list! My dive buddy and I maneuvered our nets for the catch, but as we got into position, the fish darted past us. This scenario kept repeating itself until I watched the pros. Using their bodies and nets to block, they patiently tightened their circle. As if on cue, ten fish rushed into the nets. The divers closed the nets and transferred the fish to their catch bags. Eventually I got the knack, and beamed with pride when I handed over my prizes at the swim ladder.

Not all fish are as quick as chromis. At Atlantis (the submerged "Bimini Road"), I was returning to the boat empty handed and disappointed, when I spotted a honeycomb cowfish that swam boldly into my net. Because of her delicate features and size, I swam her back to the boat and carefully handed the net, full of water and fish, up to Dan. If you visit the New England Aquarium, look for "Bessie" in the Giant Ocean Tank. She is one beautiful animal.

We used large seines twice. Using them was truly a team effort with everyone playing a critical role, either herding Mahoney snapper and smaller fish or working the nets, carefully transferring or releasing the fish, depending upon their species and size.

Everyone took extraordinary care to give each animal humane, even compassionate, treatment. When someone brought back a fish that was not on the wish list, Holly geared up and swam the fish back to where it was collected. We took every precaution to reduce a fish's stress to enhance its chances of survival. Fish collected deeper than 40 feet were placed in a 55-gallon barrel, which we raised slowly, sometimes over several hours, to avoid decompression problems. They even have a tabletop recompression chamber used for fish that need help adjusting from the ascent. The swim bladder in fish can be very sensitive to pressure changes and too rapid an ascent can swell their bladders, causing a fatality quickly. When a diver surfaced with a fish, all on board would scramble to help -- not the diver, but the fish. Occasionally a fish would be brought on board that had been previously injured, suffered from disease, or had an isopod on its face. We would carefully return it to its place on the reef. Oxygen and salinity levels in the tanks were checked regularly and kept clear of waste. We took every precaution to minimize the losses, so we got almost 100 percent of our catch safely back to Boston, where most are now living in the Aquarium's Giant Ocean Tank.

The fish we collected will be treated well, while providing countless hours of engaging entertainment, as well as educational and research opportunities. Children will see the fish and learn of their struggle to survive and how they can help. Scientists, researchers, and aquarists will gather information that may help influence government policy and private conservation efforts. Collecting fish for aquariums is just one piece in the giant puzzle of developing strategies to save our reefs and oceans. I was proud and satisfied to spend my own hard earned money to do my share.

- M.A.

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