RECOVER at Surfrider Foundation’s 2015 Florida State Conference


By Bryan Locher

Bryan attended the Surfrider Foundation’s 2015 Florida State Conference in Jupiter, Florida this past November. The Surfrider Foundation is a nonprofit organization that aims to protect the world’s oceans, waves and beaches through a powerful activist network. The 2015 State Conference was attended by the CEO of Surfrider, key members of the 11 Florida chapters,  two University chapters and other environmental activists such as state politicians and environmental lawyers. Bryan was asked to represent the University of Miami chapter, which he was chair of during the 2013-2014 academic year. This event was a perfect opportunity to inform the 50 attendees about the work of the RECOVER Consortium during Bryan’s presentation. During and after the event, he was able to speak to the CEO of the Surfrider Foundation and other activists and answer their questions about the fate of mahi-mahi and red drum in regards to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.  

Surfrider photo 2

Seeing Red


The University of Texas Marine Science Institute (UTMSI) Fisheries and Mariculture Laboratory (FAML) is located in the small, seasonal town of Port Aransas, Texas. Here, researchers are hard at work determining the scope of damage caused by oil on one of the regions most famous and sought after fish. Fishing for red drum (or redfish as it is commonly known) is a major tourism draw for anglers to the area and a recreational staple for year round residents. These large sport fish are common – with many lurking in the turbid, murky waters off docks and jetties around town.

The UTMSI location for RECOVER research is a unique reminder of the interrelation between the regions dependence on oil and the surrounding natural environment. The tallest structure in town is an offshore drilling platform, currently sitting and undergoing repair in the channel behind FAML and its operational siblings are always visible on the distant horizon offshore.

At FAML, RECOVER investigator Dr. Andrew Esbaugh and his team are raising red drum, a process pioneered at UTMSI in the 1970’s. Local adult fish are captured and held in large tanks on campus for breeding. This ‘broodstock’ reproduces and spawns thousands of eggs for the team’s research. The adult fish are easily caught with hook and line by boat in the nearby channels. Here, fresh and saltwater mix and large predators – like red drum, tarpon and dolphins – tend to gather, taking advantage of the abundance of prey. In addition to food, red drum use these channels for another important reason.

“Red drum will be congregating in these areas to spawn, their fertilized eggs will then movie into the estuary which they use as nursery habitat” says Dr. Esbaugh. “If you are fishing for broodstock… going to these channel mouths is an excellent opportunity to collect.”

Another method FAML uses to catch their broodstock fish is with the help of the local ferry dock. At night, lights under the docks and ferries attract large numbers of red drum. The team easily catches these fish with hand lines then drives them a short distance down the road to the hatchery facility. Once a broodstock has been established and they begin spawning, the rest of Dr. Esbaugh’s RECOVER team can get to work.

One Ph.D student, Alexis Khursigara, is conducting an experiment with juvenile red drum by monitoring how oil exposure alters their social behavior.

“We are starting with pairs, so putting two fish in a tank and understanding who becomes the dominant fish and who becomes the subordinate fish,” she explains. “The oil is affecting the fish’s physiology and a lot of the factors that determine social success are based on physiology.”

Prior to running her experiments she marks individual fish with a red-orange dye for identification. This dye implant is acts like a temporary tattoo that humans can see, but is believed to be invisible to the fish. She then sets up GoPro cameras to record how the fish interact with each other in the tank over a period of time.

“Being a subordinate fish really takes a toll on the fish. They stop eating, they’ll stop swimming, and they just get really beat up. It gets to the point where they have to go into recovery tanks before they can be placed back with the other fish. It just stinks to be a subordinate fish,” she laughs.

A few doors down from Alexis’ lab on the FAML campus, another experiment is underway to determine how oil affects the swim performance of exposed fish.

“We basically use a fish treadmill,” Dr. Jacob Johansen says, before he carefully places a juvenile red drum into a swim chamber.

The swim chamber is linked to a computer that measures the physical effort the fish is using to swim against a current. Dr. Johansen can adjust the speed of the current, which in turn, manipulates how fast or how hard the fish needs to swim. The data he gets in real time shows him how oil exposure is altering the swim behavior of the animals.

“Swimming is probably the most critical activity the fish perform”, he says, “It’s fundamental to all aspects of its survival including finding food, avoiding predators, finding a place to live, migrations and even reproduction as many fish move to specific spawning grounds each year.”

As the RECOVER work continues, scientists, like the team at UTMSI, will further understand the immediate and lingering effects of oil on fish physiology and behavior. What they learn will help us prepare and mitigate for future spills should they happen again.

RECOVER Scientists Participate in Women in Science Day Workshop


By Christina Pasparakis and Lela Schlenker

This past Saturday we had the pleasure of participating in the annual Exploring Marine Science Day for 6th-7th grade girls, organized by the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science and the Consortium for Advanced Research on Transport of Hydrocarbon in the Environment (CARTHE). We taught 50 girls from different Miami junior high schools about the effects of oil exposure on developing fish. Both of us were amazed at the enthusiasm and interest the girls showed and very impressed with their insightful and complex questions. We showed the girls videos and pictures of both control and oil exposed fish, and they showed great intuition when we asked them to identify which group had been exposed to oil and to brainstorm some of the traits that appeared different between the groups. We outlined some of the cardiac abnormalities that are the result of crude oil exposure in fish and we got some terrific questions about how that would effect a fish’s ability to catch prey, avoid predation, and whether these effects would be passed on to the next generation. All questions we are currently trying to answer! We were excited to tell the girls that these are questions real scientists are currently trying to answer and if they check back with us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and our website they will see updates to those topics as we work towards the answers. At the end of our presentation all of the girls got the chance to look at different stages of Mahi Mahi embryos and larvae under microscopes, which was a big hit, and a great way to wrap everything up. We were both excited to show these girls that women do really cool science and we loved seeing a group of girls that were so interested and curious; we know that if any of them decide to pursue science they will do great!

September Fishing Expedition


A team of scientists, professional anglers, and videographers recently embarked on a fishing trip to capture wild mahi-mahi broodstock (i.e. breeding adults) for the University of Miami’s Experimental Hatchery program. The ongoing research is part of the RECOVER Consortium, which is focusing on the effects of crude oil on mahi-mahi and red drum in the wake of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. RECOVER (Relationships of Effects of Cardiac Outcomes in fish for Validation of Ecological Risk) is a Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative consortia based at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.

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UM Rosenstiel School Scientists Receive Over $29 Million to Study Effects of Crude Oil Spills


Red Drum in tank

Red Drum in tank

MIAMI – Researchers at the UM Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science were awarded over $29 million in research grants from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) to lead the Consortium for Advanced Research on the Transport of Hydrocarbons in the Environment (CARTHE) and to study the toxic effects of crude oil on fish that reside in the Gulf of Mexico. UM Rosenstiel School was the only research institution to receive two of the 12 highly competitive research grants awarded by GoMRI.

“We are thrilled that GoMRI awarded such a substantial portion of the overall research funds to the two exceptional research teams put together by our scientists in collaboration with many partners at various institutions,” said UM Rosenstiel School Dean Roni Avissar. “This will allow these two teams to conduct the critical research studies necessary to understand the impacts of oil spills from both oceanographic and biological perspectives.”
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Redfish, mahi mahi subject of study looking at oil’s effects on fish hearts


Courtesy of Daniel Kelly of FishSens Magazine.

We know that oil spills have plenty of negative effects on organisms living nearby, but little is known about the precise impacts that exposure to oil can have on the health of fish hearts. For the Gulf of Mexico, that is an important question to answer because it could hold clues to the long-term chances of fish survival there.

To find out what sort of impacts oil exposure has had on fish in the Gulf, scientists at the University of California, Riverside, University of Miami, University of North Texas and the University of Texas at Austin are focusing on redfish and mahi mahi. The two economically important sport fish need to be studied to protect their ecotourism value, researchers say.
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