Monday, April 2, 2018

Intern Logs: Tagging Sharks in the Sunshine State

by Claire Mueller, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI)

Selfie of three scientists with palm trees
Front to back: SCBI and SERC interns Claire Mueller and Michelle Edwards, and SERC postdoc Chuck Bangley, explore windy Fort Pierce, Fla. 
(Credit: Claire Mueller/SERC)
As the communications intern for the Movement of Life Initiative, I’ve had the pleasure of doing a variety of fun projects, but my favorite was accompanying our marine team this winter to Fort Pierce, Fla., to continue their work with Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute at Florida Atlantic University. Our mission was to tag as many bull sharks and cownose rays that we could with acoustic transmitters, allowing us to collect location data and determine the movement patterns of these two species.
When I arrived in Florida on January 14, I first caught up with Chuck Bangley, a postdoctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC), and fellow SERC intern Michelle Edwards. They had been there since the previous Wednesday, and already had managed to tag four cownose rays and two bull sharks. Matt Ogburn (our fearless leader and principal investigator of SERC’s Fish & Invertebrate Ecology Lab) and Jay Fleming (the professional photographer documenting our expedition) joined the team on Monday night.
My favorite day of the week was undoubtedly Wednesday. We met at the boat at 6 a.m. to load up and trailer down to the lower St. Lucie River, where we’d try our luck catching our target species. The team was dragging a little—we’d had a long field day on Tuesday without too much excitement (only one small bull shark), and the morning temperatures were a little chillier than expected. But as we traveled to our first sample site and the sun began to peek out above the clouds, I began to get excited about the impending field day.
Scientists on boat
Christian Jones (left) hooks leaders onto the longline that intern Michelle Edwards (middle) passes to him. (Credit: Jay Fleming/Smithsonian)
When we arrived, we began the process of cutting up bait (usually mackerel and mullet) and organizing the boat to deploy the first longline. A longline is a long rope attached to two anchors, where we can clip on 50 baited hooks. Christian Jones, a visiting scientist from NOAA Fisheries, took the lead on setting the line, methodically clipping the hooks full of bait onto the anchored rope as it dragged from the boat.
After 30 minutes had passed, Christian hooked the float and began pulling in our catch. I was in charge of taking the leaders from the line and discarding the unused bait or handing off whatever was on the end to Michelle. She was in charge of measuring and processing the catch and reading the data out to Mike McCallister, the research coordinator for the Fisheries Ecology and Conservation Lab at Florida Atlantic University and captain of the boat that day. Within the first five leaders, we had caught bull sharks and catfish (not our target, but the individuals still need to be measured and weighed for the sake of the study).
To process the fish in the boat quickly, we tied off the longline to the boat and began tagging the two sharks we had in the tank on board. One shark was a little over two and a half feet (0.8 meters), the same size that we had been catching previously, while the other was nearly 5 feet (1.5 meters). I was able to tag both sharks’ dorsal fins and assist in measuring and weighing both. It may seem a little unnerving to work with bull sharks, typically revered as one of the most aggressive shark species, and before the trip I wondered what it would be like to work with this species. I found that once you get into the rhythm of prepping the shark for surgery and collecting data, you quickly forget about their supposed “aggression” and instead focus on how to tag the shark as quickly and efficiently as possible to lessen its time out of the water.
Two photos of scientists with live sharks on boat
Left: SERC biologist Matt Ogburn observes sharks in the onboard holding tank. Right: SERC interns Michelle Edwards (left) and Claire Mueller get ready to release a tagged bull shark. (Credit: Jay Fleming/Smithsonian)
Chuck was in charge of implanting the acoustic transmitters in the body cavity of the sharks. We put the sharks in a state of tonic immobility by turning them over, which has the same effect as anesthesia, but requires less time for the sharks to recover. The surgeries are quick, and afterwards the sharks are seemingly unfazed by their new accessory. Once released, each shark’s acoustic tag emits a unique signature that can be picked up by arrays of receivers along the East Coast of the United States as the shark journeys through through its seasonal migrations. The receivers can then download the shark’s location and send that info to the scientists who tagged the shark!
The rest of the day wasn’t nearly as exciting as the first longline sample, where we ended up catching five sharks. We only tagged three of them to speed the process of taking them off the longline and setting them free—when we start pulling up the longline we don’t have any idea how many sharks are hooked, so speed is key. Unfortunately we didn’t catch any more for the rest of the day, but overall it was a great to be out on the water working with these incredible creatures and getting to know my fellow scientists better. I’ve learned in my first years of conducting scientific studies that it’s not just about what you study, but who you study with that really makes the difference in what you get out of your science. Being in an environment that is quick to encourage and applaud, yet doesn’t hesitate to correct in a supportive way, is one of best ways to experience research in the field.
A huge thank you to both the SERC team and the Florida Atlantic University team for allowing me to tag along on this expedition! I’d also like to thank the graduate students of the Fisheries Ecology and Conservation Lab—Grace Roskar, Breanna DeGroot, Cam Luck and Rachel Shaw—for their patience and hospitality!
Seven scientists pose in front of Harbor Branch Oceanographic equipment
Shark tagging team, left to right: Claire Mueller, Michelle Edwards, Matt Ajemian, Matt Ogburn, Mike McCallister, Chuck Bangley and Christian Jones. (Credit: Claire Mueller/SERC)

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Guess Who Came for Dinner

Thanks to Chesapeake Quarterly for this excellent article highlighting research conducted by my lab!

Researchers use DNA clues to study the diets of
Chesapeake Bay fish
THE BLUE CATFISH HAS A HUGE APPETITE, and it is not a picky eater. Its dinner menu includes plants, insects, crustaceans, worms, and other fish, like menhaden, shad, and river herring.

Recreational fishers have a big appetite of their own for hooking blue catfish as trophies because of their size. The largest landed in Maryland waters, caught in 2012 in the Potomac River, weighed 84 pounds. Blue catfish (Ictalurus furcatus) are among the Chesapeake Bay's largest predators, and a supersize fish needs a lot to eat.
To resource managers, the blue catfish has fast become a big nuisance. The species is not native to the Bay; introduced to Virginia rivers in the 1970s as a game fish, blue catfish rapidly spread to all of the Chesapeake's major tributaries. Like a boorish dinner guest who won't leave, these fish have proceeded to chow down on a variety of native species like menhaden and blue crab that are important to maintaining the estuary's ecosystem and fishing industries.

To curb these effects, federal and state managers drew up plans in 2014 for reducing the abundance and range of this invasive species in the Chesapeake. The plans call in part for finding out more about exactly what blue catfish are eating in the estuary and where. But getting those answers is not easy. Fisheries scientists can remove and examine the stomach contents of a blue catfish. But if it ate its last meal more than 12 hours or so before it was caught, the contents may be partially digested goop, difficult to identify.

Now scientists studying Chesapeake Bay fisheries are beginning to apply new scientific tools that promise to help them learn more about what blue catfish and other predators are eating. They are using DNA sequencing, a technology used by police on TV shows like "CSI: Miami" to identify samples taken from crime scenes based on their unique genetic signatures. This technique can also yield clues about a different kind of remains — decomposed fish taken from blue catfish stomachs.

A Genetic Library
One of the scientists doing this work is Matt Ogburn of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC), in Edgewater, Maryland. The marine ecologist is interested in how communities of fish interact with their environment and how their dining habits change as they grow older and larger and move around. Because blue catfish are voracious eaters and their populations are rising in the Chesapeake, they are a potentially useful species to study.

Ogburn and his colleagues suspected that DNA sequencing was a more reliable way of cataloging catfish stomach contents than the traditional method, which relies on appearance. A trained biologist has to recognize the prey species by characteristics like body shape or, for crustaceans, pieces of shells left behind in the stomach.
Using DNA sequencing can offer a more precise method. Biologists use a particular technique called genetic barcoding because it's something like scanning the unique code printed on a label on a grocery-story product. This approach is possible because of a discrete, single stretch of DNA, a gene called COI, for "cytochrome c oxidase subunit 1." COI was selected as a useful gene for DNA barcoding animal species because it is very nearly unique for many species of animals, including the smaller fish and invertebrates (animals without backbones, such as worms) that predator fish in the Chesapeake like to eat. Biologists can take the remains of an animal — even one partially digested in a catfish stomach — determine the sequence of its COI gene, and compare the sequence to a library of known COI sequences to discover which species the flesh came from.

Ogburn has used a library called the Barcode of Life Database (BOLD) developed by biologists worldwide for this purpose. But the SERC scientists knew it needed some updating before they could use it to study Chesapeake Bay predators and prey. The database contains COI sequences for nearly 12,000 species of fish, including many native to the estuary. In many cases, though, the individual fish from which those gene sequences were originally derived were caught in another region of the world. Ogburn and his colleagues knew that might complicate the job of identifying stomach contents of Bay predators. That is because within a single species, genetic sequences can vary slightly across regions. A COI sequence of a small fish appearing in the BOLD database might differ from the sequence of the same species found inside the stomach of a catfish in the Chesapeake.

The researchers, including SERC biologist Robert Aguilar, set about to plug that information gap by starting a new project called the Chesapeake Bay Barcode Initiative. In 2011, they began obtaining specimens of fish and invertebrates caught in the estuary, determined the COI sequence for each, and contributed the information to the BOLD database. So far, they've found COI sequences for more than 220 of the Bay's 315 fish species. The work has created a resource that can be used for other kinds of fisheries research in the future.

CSI for Fish Stomachs
Gene map of some fish species. Graphic, Chesapeake Bay Barcoding Initiative, Smithsonian Environmental Research Center
These portions of a DNA segment (above) show unique signatures of eight species of fish and invertebrates. Scientists can use this segment, named COI, to identify prey species in the stomach contents of larger predator fish, such as blue catfish, living in the Chesapeake Bay. Each color represents a separate "letter" in the genetic code contained within the DNA (except for gray, which represents a gap in the sequence). Species that are closely related tend to have sequences that are more similar than do species that are less closely related. Graphic, Chesapeake Bay Barcoding Initiative, Smithsonian Environmental Research Center
Dining Choices of Blue Catfish
Robert Aguilar. Photograph, Nicky Lehming
Robert Aguilar, a biologist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, helped develop a library of these DNA segments. Photograph, Nicky Lehming
With that improved tool in hand, Ogburn's team wanted to know which method was more reliable for identifying stomach contents, genetic barcoding or the traditional technique of examining appearance. The team compared both methods to analyze contents from 319 blue catfish caught in four tidal freshwater areas in Maryland — the Patuxent River, Marshyhope Creek, the Sassafras River, and Swan Creek.

It wasn't much of a contest: the SERC researchers identified the species of only nine percent of tissue samples by observing morphology but 90 percent using genetic barcoding. The latter represented 23 different fish species, a sign of the blue catfish's wide-ranging palate. The researchers even found an unexpected piece of tissue — from a black cormorant. Ogburn speculates that the blue catfish scavenged upon the bird's carcass after it wound up in the water.

Not everything in a fish's stomach is easily identifiable using genetic techniques, especially the remains of invertebrates. These animals, such as mysids (small crustaceans) and polychaetes (worms), can make up a large portion of the diet of some predator fish. But there are gaps in the DNA library for these species. So far Ogburn and his colleagues have determined DNA sequences for only 250 species of the larger Bay invertebrates while the number in the estuary is estimated to total more than 1,000. The species of each invertebrate has to be correctly identified through other techniques before researchers can label it with its DNA code, and identifying invertebrates, which are small, can be time-consuming and tricky. That is why the SERC study of blue catfish, published in 2017 in the journal Environmental Biology of Fishes, covered only the fish species they ate and not invertebrates. George Mason University researchers are conducting a pilot study using DNA barcoding to determine what kinds of invertebrates are eaten by predator fish in the Potomac River.

Maryland Sea Grant has also funded research to develop this kind of technology. Rose Jagus, a molecular biologist, and graduate student Ammar Hanif used DNA barcoding to analyze the stomach contents of menhaden, an important prey species for striped bass. The researchers used a genetic sequence other than COI to identify what kinds of phytoplankton menhaden eat.

A Next-Generation Genetic Tool
Given the limitations of DNA barcoding, it is unlikely to replace visual observation of stomach contents any time soon. Examiners can often see enough detail about partially digested fish and the bones and shell left in the stomach to assign particular samples to at least a broad taxonomic grouping, such as a genus or family, if not a particular species. Those details have given resource managers important information about what predator fish are eating in the Chesapeake Bay.

But emerging genetic techniques offer scientists a complementary, powerful, and efficient way to study the estuary's fisheries. In contrast to DNA barcoding of a single tissue sample at a time, an approach called "next-generation sequencing" can quickly identify all of the species in a fish stomach in a single laboratory test run. This is a quicker method than analyzing individual items one by one. The next-generation method should also indicate the relative abundances of prey species within a stomach, such as whether the predator recently ate more menhaden or more bay anchovies.

The same approach can also be used to examine other important questions in fisheries biology, like whether a water sample from a particular river contains DNA of an endangered, rare fish like river herring or sturgeon or an invasive species like blue catfish. That information could help inform managers about where to focus their efforts to protect the endangered fish and reduce the populations of unwelcome, invasive fish.

Next-generation sequencing has not yet been used to study Chesapeake Bay fisheries, but progress to date suggests that it and more traditional DNA barcoding have a lot of promise, Ogburn says. "It's been an exciting area to try to push into. It's producing new opportunities for new kinds of research. We're always looking for ways to get better data, to get it more efficiently, and to answer important questions for management or conservation."

Friday, October 27, 2017

Following the Movement of Life: Tagging Sharks and Rays

by Cosette Larash (Smithsonian Environmental Research Center) and Claire Mueller (Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute):

For the last three years, a team of biologists from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center has been tracking stingrays, sharks and other species along the East coast of the United States. Matt Ogburn and Charles Bangley are leading the project, in an effort to learn more about these charismatic yet often misunderstood animals. It’s part of the Movement of Life Initiative, a developing program in animal tracking research conducted by Smithsonian Institution researchers and their colleagues.

Ogburn and Bangley are focusing on five species: Cownose Rays and four major species of sharks (Bull Sharks, Blacktip Sharks, Dusky Sharks, and Smooth Dogfish). They began tagging cownose rays in 2014, and added on sharks in 2016. By understanding the movement patterns of these animals, the Smithsonian biologists and their colleagues hope to unlock some of the mystery that surrounds them. For example, scientists know Cownose Rays are born in the Chesapeake Bay and return when they’re about four years old, but no one knows where they go in the meantime. The sharks they are studying all occupy similar areas, but use underwater habitats differently. By learning how and where these organisms move, they can understand their environment as well.
In the future, the scientists hope to use the data to uncover when and why these species occupy different areas, and determine the potential impact of human activities such as fisheries and offshore wind farms. Check out the videos above and below to learn more about these projects.


Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Change is in the air

As the cool breezes of fall blow into the Chesapeake region, I'm excited for the changing seasons and for upcoming changes to the Blue Crab Blog. You've probably noticed my posts have slowed down a lot in the last year. After considering shutting down the blog entirely, I've decided to shift away from a sole focus on blue crabs to the broader range of fisheries and marine conservation topics I'm now working on. You'll still find a good bit of blue crab news here, but also posts on sharks and rays, river herring, oysters, biodiversity, and long-term studies of coastal ecosystems. My goal is to produce at least one new blog post at the beginning of each month, with additional news items sprinkled in here and there. The first post is nearly ready and will highlight shark and ray research at Smithsonian. I hope you like the changes and keep coming back!

-Matt Ogburn

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab Spawning Stock is Highest Recorded!

Results of the annual blue crab population survey in Chesapeake Bay are out and there's some great news and some not so good news. The 254 million spawning age females (this year's reproductive stock) are the most recorded in the survey. On the other hand, juvenile numbers are half what they were a year ago.

The figure above is from Maryland Department of Natural Resources Winter Dredge Survey page.

You can read more about the survey results here.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Maryland officials hint at "customer service" approach to management

At a hearing this week called to address the firing of Maryland's 28-year blue crab fishery manager, officials described a shift to a "customer service" approach to management. It remains unclear how much of a shift this will represent from the science-based management approach of the previous administration. Read more about the hearing in this Baltimore Sun article.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Maryland's Governor Hogan fires blue crab manager

From the Bay Journal:

Maryland’s veteran manager of the state’s blue crab fishery was fired this week after a group of watermen complained to Gov. Larry Hogan about a catch regulation that they contend hurts their livelihood — but that scientists say is needed to ensure a sustainable harvest. 
Brenda Davis, crab program manager for the Department of Natural Resources and a 28-year state employee, said she was informed Tuesday that her services were no longer needed.

In an interview Wednesday, Davis said Fisheries Director Dave Blazer gave no reason for her summary dismissal. But it came after Hogan met last week with about a dozen Dorchester County watermen who had been pressing Davis and the DNR for a change in a long-time regulation setting the minimum catchable size for crabs. 
“I was totally shocked. It was totally unexpected,” Davis said yesterday. “I was really surprised and a bit disappointed given my time there that re-assignment wasn’t an option, because I think I’m going to be short on being able to do full retirement.” 
A spokeswoman for the governor declined to comment. A DNR spokesman likewise said officials would not comment on a personnel matter.
Read the rest of the article here.