Time to head home… for a little while at least!

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Goodbye sunfishes!

Of course all good things must come to an end, and the summer of sunfish is coming to a close. Although along the trip there has been occasional shedding of blood, sweat and tears (sometimes simultaneously!) I have loved every mad minute of it. We have tissue samples from 51 sunfish and tag data from 2 which is a fantastic result (up 5000% from last year!) Of course we still have 2 sunfish tags out somewhere in the Ligurian Triangle that I am still hopeful will return to us eventually🙂

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The sun sets on another field season

I realise I am probably one of the luckiest researchers in the world chasing down big fish in beautiful locations and I have to thank the people who enable me to do this, namely The Fisheries Society of the British Isles (who fund my PhD) and the Portofino Marine Protected Area authorities and fishermen of the Tonnarella whose kindness and support in the field has been incredible! I cannot thank them enough (but fortunately beer is the international vote of thanks!) Alongside this star cast, I also received generous funding support for this field season from The Royal Society of Biology and the William and Betty MacQuitty Travel Scholarship QUB.

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Going to miss these guys…

So what happens next? No time for back-to-work-blues as I am heading back to Belfast to work up my data for a month… then I’m afraid I’m jetting off again to my first big international conference! The American Fisheries Society Conference is one of the biggest gathering of fish biologists in the world (up to 3,000 people!) over a week of talks, trade fairs, training sessions and socials. I am attending the conference courtesy of the FSBI and AFS student exchange programme and through travel funding from the Marine Institute which means I can present a talk on sunfish distribution and a poster on sunfish use of mesopelagic depths! Little bit terrifying but extremely exciting! I will be blogging and tweeting from the conference and following that I will be using my time State-side to meet with a man who knows more about sunfish needs than anyone, Michael Howard, senior aquarist and keeper of the sunfish at Monterrey Bay Aquarium!

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Lots of fun to come!

We hope to do a few feeding trials with Michael’s sunfish and hopefully validate the harness and tags on an individual we can actually watch! Fingers crossed the sunfish in the tanks are big and healthy for September!

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Michael Howard target training sunfish

But lots of work to do before then so better crack on! Updates to be posted soon🙂

Lights, camera, sunfish! Discovery documentary take 2

Last year, the sunfish research project was lucky enough to spark the interest of the Daily Planet show on the Discovery Channel and we spent a great day out on the water filming our work for a brief (10 minute) documentary. However as the saying goes never work with animals on TV… the sunfish must have caught a case of camera shyness and we had no fish to work with! Fortunately Lara, the director, still thought our work was intriguing enough to give it another go this year so time for take 2!

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The Marine Protected Area authorities very kindly lent us their high power RIB for the day (as it would have been a bit of a squeeze on the fishermen’s wooden rowboats!) so we set off early with Valentina and Giorgio (from the MPA) and Kevin our cameraman. It was a really hot day even at 8am and we watched the fishermen pull the nets feeling relived to be out of the sun but also a bit guilty for not helping! After raising the nets half way, the crew stopped for a break and to let a group of divers swim with the sunfish (the diver leader, Robbie, often helps to empty the nets when they become too full of sunfish to lift and with other in-water net problems so this is one of his job perks!).  Robbie very kindly took my Go-Pro on one of his dives to capture some amazing underwater footage of the sunfish!

After he returned, it transpired that there were no commercial species of fish in the nets so the fishermen decided to go back to port early without emptying the Tonnarella. This was a real blow to our hopes of tagging a sunfish on film, and although I offered to pay the fishermen more than usual to raise the nets, they were just too tired (of course they had also raised the nets at 3am that morning.) So we returned to Santa Margherita where Kevin interviewed me about our work (little bit nerve-wracking!) and we were able to plan our afternoon trip to the Tonnarella for the last net pull of the day at 4pm.

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We arrived a little early to demonstrate on camera how we locate and collect our equipment after it is released from the sunfish, and then we waited for the fishermen to pull the nets. The weather, which had been perfect flat calm and hot in the morning was now cool with a strong breeze and we guiltily watched the fishermen having to work harder and harder to pull the boat against the wind.

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But luck was with us this time! 19 sunfish flapped in the nets, including a gorgeous specimen weighing 22kg to show off to the camera. We took full samples from this individual which behaved beautifully, no wild fins slaps today, the fish lay calmly while we took tissue samples and measurements before we released it into the water in under 4 minutes! A perfect end to the day🙂

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Lawrence and I have also been collecting footage throughout the field season of our work on ocean sunfish so this will be added to the film taken on the day and hopefully some of our videos will be added to the documentary! Watch this space🙂

Fish-eye view: sunfish selfie!

What a week! I finally had the chance to deploy my best piece of kit which has been carefully saved until we had tested new retrieval techniques (as it’s rather special and expensive!) So now we are deploying accelerometers on fish within the Tonnarella nets using the nets as a giant sea pen (344m wide by 80m deep), for approx. 4 hours before the harness pops off and the fish is then recaptured and lifted to true freedom at the next net haul.

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The harness and tag then float at the surface so I have the best chance of finding it in one area before it drifts off! We deployed a CEFAS accelerometer this way (great piece of kit, how can you fit so many sensors into such a tiny object?!) and heard it on the radio receiver within 5 minutes of it arriving at the surface. Lawrence and I then kayaked out to collect it!

So I finally had the confidence to use the CATScam (Customised Animal Tracking Solutions camera) which is a bit larger with in-built accelerometer and video camera! This means the sunfish will film its day so we can visually validate all behaviours and get a fishes-eye view of the world!

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Of course, even after months of background work, even the best laid plans can go astray… the tag deployed perfectly, the fish swam off into the nets… but after 4 hours there was nothing, no signal, no peep from the radio tag. Hours and then days passed, and the tag was nowhere to be found. Maybe the sunfish escaped the nets, maybe the tag drifted away really fast, maybe it was run over by a boat and sunk! Unlimited nightmare scenarios kept running through my mind… and when I had almost lost all hope: an email!! It was found by a member of the public in Portofino harbour! The labels and reward had worked and we now have full data from another sunfish including video footage! What a relief!

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Our sunfish had filmed its day, including an encounter with another sunfish in the Tonnarella! The data we have received is really invaluable to my research and will help us to better understand this vulnerable species; how they travel, how much energy they need, what they eat and what the potential ecosystem-wide impacts might be if the current rates of mass removal of sunfishes continues. All this information will be useful for future management and conservation of sunfishes across the world, so I am really delighted!

Fingers crossed for more flat calm weather to get the next logger deployed soon!

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Any comments/questions? Please get in touch!

Email: nphillips01@qub.ac.uk

Twitter: @sunfishresearch

Instagram: Sunfishresearch

Sunfish season! A day in the life of a marine biologist!

What a field season this is turning into! From a nervous start to an average of 50 sunfish a day! I have more fish than I can work with, a complete turn-around from last year. As long as the weather is suitable, myself and my colleague Lawrence are out every day (we work early mornings, evenings, weekends!) if there are fish we will be there. Many people have asked me what a typical field day looks like, so here is a day in the life of a marine biologist!

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  • 5:45 Get up, breakfast and triple check everything is packed for the day (sampling kits/weighing scales/accelerometer harness if deploying…)
  • 6:20 Leave to catch train from Santa Margherita to Camogli to meet the fishermen
  • 7:00 Meet the fishermen in the harbour where they are breakfasting after their 3-6am catch (luckily for me the trains do not run this early so I get to join the later morning haul!)
  • 8:00 Row out from the main boat to the moored barge where we prep the fishing gear and my sampling kits. Then the fishermen lay out towels and catch a quick nap while listening to ‘Radio Bambalayo’ (great 80’s music! My favourite moment was the spontaneous dancing and hauling to Karma Chameleon last week!) We have the best part of an hour to wait while the head of the fishermen, Maurizio looks in the nets to estimate our catch (and double check the nets are worth pulling up!) He uses a ‘spectaculor’ (similar to traffic cone with a glass base) to look through the water from the rowing boat for fish.

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  • 9:00 Start pulling the nets! It is hard work as the sun is high overhead by 8am in this region and it is hot hot hot! If any sunfish are tangled in the net mesh as we pull, then these are freed and passed to me to weigh, measure and sample before being thrown back and I rejoin the net pull.
  • 10:20 We reach the end of the nets where the fish are corralled between the two boats. I have approximately 20 minutes to process as many sunfish as possible while the fishermen tip their catch on ice and prepare to leave. Usually this means I can take full samples from 5 sunfish or deploy a harness and tag!

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  • 11:15 Arrive back in port with my samples safely stowed, then head home to label and preserve them back at the flat.
  • 12:00 Start processing samples! All tissue samples need to be labelled and dried in tin foil boats in a small drying oven or preserved in alcohol for later analysis. Previous samples can be removed from the dryer, wrapped up and stored. All waterproofs and boat clothes need washing straight away to scrub off the sunfish mucus (which gets everywhere as they flap!) or poop (which is often projectile!) and all equipment cleaned up. All photos and video needs downloading and saving to file and all data on collected samples typing up.
  • 2:00 If we deployed a harness with accelerometer in the morning, we return to Camogli and hire kayaks to paddle the 3 km out to the fishing grounds and search for the harness using the radio tag that beeps when we are near. If no deployment, we filter water samples and collect invertebrates from local areas and store them for later isotopic analysis.

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  • 6:00 Return to the flat for dinner and if I am lucky one of the trawlermen from Santa Margherita will have a box of fisheries discards for me to survey and take samples from as part of our studies on the local ecosystem. These often include small shark species like velvet belly lantern and cat sharks, crabs, octopus, squid and small fish.
  • 10:00 Prepare the sampling packs and repack the bags ready to start again in the morning!

It’s busy of course, but exhilarating! This is the best part of my year, the bit that makes all the stress of office work melt away. If the weather changes or the sea swell becomes too high for us to go out on boats, I’ll have a day at my desk working up papers and bits of analysis from Belfast or fixing equipment.

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To date we have >30 sunfish sampled and 3 harness tags at sea somewhere (hopefully to return soon!!) So if you happen to be on the Liguria coast this summer and spot something bright yellow with a grey belt, grab it! 30 euro reward and my eternal gratitude!

Reward poster_cats

Any comments/questions? Please get in touch!

Email: nphillips01@qub.ac.uk

Twitter: @sunfishresearch

Instagram: sunfishresearch

Turning the beaches blue! It’s a Velella flotilla*!

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Although the sunfish scarcity continues, the recent stormy seas have washed up a variety of intriguing creatures as the waves cough up their flotsam onto the beaches. As I walked the beaches in search of sunfish harnesses and other potentially interesting finds, it appeared that the pebbles were littered with tiny pieces of soft plastic, like shredded shopping bags. Among the plastic bottles and tumbled logs, the beaches around Santa Margherita have been invaded by a thousand strong flotilla of ‘by-the-wind-sailors’ or Velella velella.

* I appreciate that Velella Flotilla sounds like something you might have as a snack with your morning coffee but I couldn’t resist. “Would you like a Velella Flotilla with that?”

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Thousands of Velella’s in the breaking waves (photo credit Lawrence Eagling see more on his amazing photography website: eaglingphotography.co.uk).

These tiny creatures are remarkable for many reasons! Firstly, their shape means that they float on the sea surface, with tiny tendrils trailing the water for plankton like little fishing nets. However, rather than waste precious energy by swimming or pulsing, these animals have evolved to travel the high seas like the explorers of old: using wind power! The central triangle section acts as a sail, driving the Velella around the ocean. Intriguingly, these creatures come in two forms; one right-handed and one left-handed, with sails set to differing angles. The theory behind this is that if the prevailing wind direction drives all the right-handed Velella’s to strand on beaches, the left-handed population will sail to safety and re-populate.

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Due to their gelatinous bodies, these are tiny creatures are often mistaken for jellyfish, however the truth is far more intriguing! They are actually classed as hydroids, (like the Portuguese Man Of War!), which are composed of hundreds of individual creatures, all working together to form a larger centrally functioning “body”. Each individual has a specialised function (from those that work in digestion of prey, to making the sail, to reproduction), but all benefit from the communal actions of the whole. Inside the living tissues, a central structure made of carbonate, acts as a skeleton to keep the boat and sail sections rigid.

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Although the floating colony stage is the one most people are more familiar with, however this is just one of many stages in a complex life cycle. The colony will later release tiny medusa (a few mm long) which are the sexual reproducing stage and will release eggs and sperm into the water. The eggs can develop into tiny larvae which later develop into the floating colony again!

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Illustrated Velella lifecycle (diagram found at bodegahead.blogspot.it, modification of original by Langstroth and Langstroth 2000)  

The recent rough seas here in Italy have driven large numbers of Velellas (usually found in the open oceans of warm temperate and tropical regions) to form huge aggregations, and some of which have been driven ashore. The good news for my research is that ocean sunfishes have been photographed eating Velella’s as a bite sized snack! So fingers crossed for some more sunfish soon🙂

For video of sunfish chasing down Velella’s check out this link: 

Monterey Bay Whale Watch

This beautiful photo shows exactly what I would love to see! Many thanks again to © Jodi Frediani for her kind permission to borrow this one and for more wonderful photographs check out her website: http://www.jodifrediani.com

Any questions/comments? Found a sunfish? Get in touch!

Email: nphillips01@qub.ac.uk

Twitter: @sunfishresearch

Instagram: @sunfishresearch

 

All quiet on the sunfish front…

We are taught that history has a delightful tendency to repeat itself, and such is the case in Italy this year. The data loggers I deployed last week have vanished once again! No bleep from the radio tags, no splash of yellow floating in the sea… however, always the optimist, I believe that the recent storms may have pushed the floats further offshore or driven them north. This is not a serious problem, as all my equipment is well labelled so that anyone who finds such a strange looking object on the beach will see the reward label and my contact details, so I will simply have to be patient once again!

The recent storms compared to calmer days!

In the meantime, I am out with the fishermen as often as the weather (and train connections) will let me! No more sunfish at the moment, but it is still early in the season and the temperature has plummeted over the last few days, so fingers crossed more to come.

“No sunfish here!” Fishermen using a ‘spectaculare’ to search for fish in the Tonnarella and taking a break on deck

As the weather looks to be stormy all week, with high swell (and therefore a bad idea to deploy further loggers), I am taking the chance to turn my little apartment into a cutting edge isotope and statistical analysis laboratory! I’m collecting samples from along the coast to consider potential prey items for ocean sunfish and assess the local ecosystem structure. This requires me to collect all manner of plants and creatures (from rockpool invertebrates, to the local catch of the day and fisheries discards) for stable isotope analysis. We can then identify the chemical signature of each species, and see which occur in sunfish tissues (you are what you eat!) I’m also analysing further data for differing chapters in my PhD, so plenty to be getting on with, and I will be back on the fishing boats later in the week when the stormy weather breaks🙂

Isotope sampling (ontop of the laundry basket of course!) and preparing for wet weather

In the meantime, if anyone is holidaying in Italy and spots a sunfish harness please let me know!  As always, if you find a sunfish dead or alive, or have a burning question drop me a line in the comments section below or contact me:

Email: nphillips01@qub.ac.uk

Twitter: @sunfishresearch

Instagram: sunfishresearch

A collection of my Italian experiences so far!

Catch of the day!

Today dawned bright and very early to find me already on the fishing barge at the Camogli Tonnarella for my first chance this summer to chase down ocean sunfish!

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Darkness to dawn over Camogli

After a few hours sleep, we were up at 3am, dodging the last (and rather bemused) late night revellers to join the fishermen on their first catch of the day. The fishermen arrived and after a few sleepy buongiorno’s we set off on their wooden painted boat, the Andrea II, into the darkness. In the pitch black, I could just make out the stars and fishermen’s glowing cigarette ends as we lurched out of the harbour into the bay. After a short boat trip (navigating purely by memory I assume, as it was impossible to make out anything), we reached the main fishing barge.

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The barge at first light (too dark for photos any earlier!)

The Tonnarella is approximately the size of two tennis courts with a barge at one end and the Andrea II moored at the other. The set nets form a maze below us with a large funnel for fish to swim into, then following the currents, they are directed into smaller chambers between the barge and the boat. The fishermen then line up along the side of the barge (me included in borrowed neon waders) and together we pulled the net taught, dragging the barge through the water to the day boat, and closing the net. The fish are then trapped between the barge and day boat where they can be scooped out. It sounds simple enough, but as I quickly learned, this is back-breaking, arm-aching labour!

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Pulling the nets by hand (photo from last year)

As the first light dawned around 5am, we had our first catch, the water alive with thrashing fish. Incredibly, after all the trials of last year (which resulted in a grand total of one sunfish over 6 weeks of searching) amongst the silver sea bream and green horse mackeral, we had struck gold! Not one, but two ocean sunfishes flapped awkwardly in the folds of the net!

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The first sunfish of the season! What a beauty!

These were removed by hand and popped in a keep net until the fishermen had finished collecting their catch, and then they left to take it directly to the waiting vans and locals on the keyside. This sudden calm left me time to pull the sunfish onboard and take my measurements and clip a harness on (which will record sunfish movements, depth and temperature), with a special link that dissolves after a few hours. After their release, both sunfishes remained at the surface for approximately 5 minutes before diving back into deeper water. A wonderful sight!

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Taking measurements before returning sunfish to the sea

The fishermen returned at 9 and we repeated the net pull to reveal a school of horse mackerel and two smaller sunfish, which we measured and took a few samples from before releasing them once again. As we chug back to shore in the day boat, I cannot believe my luck and fingers crossed we will have the harnesses returned soon! I thanked the fishermen for their time, and with a donation towards the crew’s breakfast which was met with cries of “dolce creatura” or sweet creature, which puts me in mind of something escaped from the Black Lagoon, (but I’ve been called worse!) and many scratchy bearded kisses. Incredibly kind people and I hope to join them again next week to begin my early morning adventures again!

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A job well done!

Any comments, queries or questions? Seen a dead sunfish or maybe a sunfish harness?! Please email me at: nphillips01@qub.ac.uk or contact on twitter @sunfishresearch

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 Sunfish harnesses (more photos to come of deployment on sunfish!)