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!

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Any comments/questions? Please get in touch!

Email: nphillips01@qub.ac.uk

Twitter: @sunfishresearch

Instagram: sunfishresearch

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