Category Archives: Science/Research

Establishing a biological and ecological baseline of Cuba’s coastal ecosystems

By: Kendra Karr & Owen Liu

A team of scientists from Cuba and EDF set sail on an expedition to assess the status and health of marine ecosystems of the Gulf of Ana Maria and the Gardens of the Queen marine reserve in southern Cuba, one of the most pristine and intact coral reef ecosystems in the Caribbean.

One morning we awoke to a small tuna boat pulling up alongside the RV Felipe Poey.  The crew of the “Unidad ‘77” had been targeting bonito, a small tuna-like fish, south of the Gardens of the Queen marine reserve. EDF scientists were eager to tap into the captain’s localized knowledge, and peppered him with questions that were ably translated by CIM’s Patricia González.   The captain described his fishing grounds, proudly displayed his catch and explained how his crew times their trips to coincide with certain phases of the moon.  Before shoving off, the captain asked for some cooking oil for his next voyage.  We traded oil for tuna and enjoyed fresh fish for many meals over the next few days.

 

A Scientific Baseline for Management:

Vessels like Unidad ‘77 are common in Cuba: small boats that work for the state, the livelihoods of their crews dependent upon a stable resource base.  This and future expeditions will synthesize scientific findings to inform the management of Cuba’s marine resources.  While our voyage was one of discovery, there were practical benefits too; the datasets we initiated will ultimately increase understanding of how ecosystems in Cuba work, which is essential to developing its coastal fishing economy in a sustainable manner.

Long-term monitoring programs are some of the most powerful tools that managers and scientists have to track and gauge ecosystem performance, variation and resilience.  They generate baseline information about the status of a target species or ecosystem. In many cases, baseline information is used to analyze an impacted region after a major change (such as a disturbance either natural or human produced), or as reference data to compare between areas of interest; for example, to compare Cuba to other regions of the Caribbean that have been heavily impacted.  Well-designed programs aid in evaluating impacts and help tailor recovery and management strategies. Additionally, long term monitoring data helps to identify areas that are more or less resilient to change over time. We can identify factors that enhance ecosystem health and resilience, as well as factors that have negative impacts.

But long-term fishery datasets are rare, and of those that exist, most are limited in their geographic scope.  The data collected during this expedition and future trips represent a significant step forward for Cuba.  Additional trips are planned in other regions of the country, alongside annual sampling across all of the monitoring regions including the Gardens of the Queen. Read More »

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Collaborative research in the Gulf of Ana Maria & the Gardens of the Queen

By: Kendra Karr & Owen Liu

A team of scientists from Cuba and EDF set sail on an expedition to assess the status and health of marine ecosystems of the Gulf of Ana Maria and the Gardens of the Queen marine reserve in southern Cuba, one of the most pristine and intact coral reef ecosystems in the Caribbean.

Cuba’s Centro de Investigaciones de Ecosistemas Costeras (CIEC) field station in the Gardens of the Queen is a cozy lodge in a quiet inlet tucked away on a mangrove-covered cay.  Near the Caballones Strait in the middle of the beautiful Gardens of the Queen, the station is a base for Cuban students and researchers studying Cuba’s unique coastal ecosystems.  On our research cruise in October 2013, scientists from EDF, CIEC, and the University of Havana’s Centro de Investigaciones Marinas (CIM) spent a few nights at the station, interspersed along the two week trip.  We used the shore time to compile data and organize gear, scramble for a few minutes of (very) limited Internet access to send updates home and simply enjoy a night on dry ground.

Sitting on the dock watching the sun set over the Gardens provided a chance to reflect on the work we were doing, and to ponder about the interconnectivity between the data sets we had collected.

A Diversity of Data:

During the cruise, researchers from CIM, CIEC, and EDF surveyed more than 30 sites across multiple habitat types, both inside and out of the Gardens of the Queen marine reserve. In the future, these sites will offer a baseline measure of connectivity between the offshore environments and nearshore fishing grounds.  During the expedition, researchers collected samples from commercially-valuable fish species, corals, sessile and mobile invertebrates and macroalgae.

All of the samples will undergo an independent stable isotope analysis, which allows researchers to quantify the relative contributions of individuals from each region/site to the fishing grounds and identify migration corridors among important habitats.  In short, it will help determine where an individual fish, coral colony, etc. originated from.  Combined with oceanographic and abiotic data collected during the expedition (for example, nutrients and sediments in seawater; tides, currents and waves), this information will reveal a more complete picture of interconnectivity between the various marine habitats in this unique region of the Caribbean.

We used a variety of methods to gather data.  To assess coral health, researchers used SCUBA to get close enough to the reef to document the diversity of species at each site and look for signs of degradation or disease.  To study which fish used shallow seagrass – mangrove habitats as either nursery grounds or as adult habitats, we used a beach seine net from the shoreline to corral, count, and measure individual fish.  By seeing which species of fish utilized the nearshore mangrove and seagrass beds, and then counting the fish on the nearby coral reefs with a visual transect method, we could begin to see, literally, the biological connections between these distinct habitats.  As some researchers were in the water, counting fish or documenting coral health, others collected water samples for chemical analysis or hauling in a sampling net. Read More »

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Tri-national collaboration & research in the Gardens of the Queen: The expedition begins

By: Kendra Karr & Owen Liu

With support from the Waitt Foundation, EDF launched an initiative last year with the University of Havana's Center for Marine Research that allowed teams of Cuban, U.S. and Mexican scientists to carry out a series of expeditions to conduct vital new research on Cuba's remarkable—but understudied—marine and coastal ecosystems. 

A Special Caribbean Reef

Coral reefs are some of the world’s most imperiled marine habitats.  Impacts from climate change, pollution, overfishing and resource extraction combine to threaten reefs all over the world.  This is especially true in the Caribbean, where rapid development is underway across the Caribbean Sea, exacerbating the stressors on coral reefs and their related seagrass and mangrove ecosystems.

However, in one special corner of the Caribbean, the Gardens of the Queen archipelago, has remained remarkably resilient in the face of this collective pressure.  A Caribbean marine paradise, The Gardens consist of more than 600 cays and islands and is home to the largest contiguous reserve in the Caribbean at 2,170 square kilometers.  It supports a mosaic of mangrove, seagrass, patch reefs, fringing red and reef slope and is abundant with fish, sharks and other marine life.

To reach the Gardens of the Queen from mainland Cuba, one must bisect the Gulf of Ana Maria, a shallow-water system comprised of mangrove, seagrass and coral reefs. The ecosystems of the Gulf of Ana Maria and Gardens of the Queen together cover more than 10,000 square kilometers of productive habitat, making the entire archipelago a magnet for eco-tourism, including SCUBA diving and recreational fishing. Despite a growing eco-tourism industry and offering one of the best examples of a resilient Caribbean reef, much about the Gardens remains a mystery.

We are excited about our partnership with the University of Havana’s Centro de Investigaciones Marinas (CIM) and the Centro de Investigaciones de Ecosistemas Costeras (CIEC), and the potential for collaborative scientific exploration to yield foundational data  and information about marine habitats in and around the Gardens of the Queen.  Our inaugural expedition in (February) 2013 harnessed expertise from a tri-national team of scientists, which shared knowledge and scientific methods while surveying migratory shark populations off Cuba's south coast in the Gulf of Batabanó, to the west of the Gardens of the Queen.  In October 2013, scientists from the three organizations hopped aboard the RV Felipe Poey and RV Itajara to journey to the Gardens reserve itself, and the nearby Gulf of Ana Maria.  This 19-day expedition produced new data about the special Gardens ecosystems, and shared expertise among scientists from the three organizations, promoted collaboration, increased scientific capacity and forged new friendships. Read More »

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Electronic monitoring is improving fishery management across the country

EMWorkshop2014

In previous fishery monitoring posts we explored a variety of obstacles to collecting accurate and timely data from vessels in the Chesapeake Bay, West Coast and New England fisheries. These fisheries don’t just have monitoring challenges in common. They also share a solution: each region is piloting an electronic monitoring (EM) or electronic reporting (ER) system intended to make data collection more comprehensive, flexible and affordable. These are not the only regions exploring how new technologies can be integrated into fishery monitoring plans.  In fact, all eight of the U.S. fishery management regions have, or are currently testing EM or ER tools.

In 2013, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation awarded a Fisheries Innovation Grant to Dorothy Lowman to convene a National Electronic Monitoring Workshop.  Lowman is a natural resource consultant and Chair of the Pacific Fishery Management Council.  EDF cosponsored the workshop, viewing it as a linchpin in bringing fishery leaders together to identify common challenges, and common solutions, to monitoring—one of the most important elements of fisheries management. The workshop facilitated information exchange across regions and helped address outstanding challenges in implementing cost-effective monitoring systems. After more than seven months of planning by a Steering Committee that included fishing industry, managers, monitoring companies and EDF, the National EM Workshop was held January 8th and 9th in Seattle, Washington.   More than 150 fishery managers and stakeholders from across the country attended the workshop along with select representatives from Canada, Denmark and Australia. Read More »

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Electronic Monitoring and Accountability in the Chesapeake Proves Effective

MD Blue Crab Design Team member and active EM pilot project participant, David Kirwin, uses a tablet to submit daily harvest reports from his boat Photo Credit: Ward Slacum

MD Blue Crab Design Team member and active EM pilot project participant, David Kirwin, uses a tablet to submit daily harvest reports from his boat
Photo Credit: Ward Slacum

Discussion about innovation, trends and shortfalls in fisheries monitoring tends to focus on large, off-shore fisheries in New England, Alaska and the Pacific.  Those regions are home to multi-species fisheries, with complex biological interactions, and are targeted by large boats that result in sizeable discards of “non-target” fish.  Monitoring technologies, both human and electronic, are essential to reduce this waste.  Smaller scale fisheries, however, have just as much need for improved electronic monitoring and accountability measures.

Not surprisingly, blue crab is the most valuable fishery in the Chesapeake Bay.  And it’s about as complex as they come.  More than 7,000 watermen deploy small boats from thousands of waterfront access points and are regulated by three different management jurisdictions, all of which use antiquated reporting systems.

As reported on this blog before, commercial crabbers in Maryland have tested mobile technologies, like smart phones and tablets, to report and verify daily harvest.  In 2012 and 2013, volunteers used these various technologies and provided constructive feedback to Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) to improve its monitoring and reporting system.  Overall, participants in the two-year pilot are pleased with mobile technology tools and the web-based reporting platform, which along with dockside spot checks, have improved reporting accuracy and timeliness, according to fisheries managers.  As part of the 2013 pilot, fisheries managers offered limited regulatory flexibility for pilot volunteers in order to encourage participation and demonstrate how improved accountability can lead to streamlined regulations. Read More »

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Coral Reef Thresholds for Ecosystem Management

(c) Jim Patterson Photography, https://jimpattersonphotography.com/

(c) Jim Patterson Photography, https://jimpattersonphotography.com/

By: Rod Fujita & Kendra Karr

Fisheries management is principally focused on managing fishing pressure, with the goal of keeping individual fish stocks healthy enough to produce good yields.  But fisheries also affect the basic processes that keep ocean ecosystems healthy.  This is why it is important to understand how many fish need to be in the system to maintain the many important services that an ocean ecosystem can produce — including the maintenance of biodiversity, tourism value, and fisheries — and to manage fisheries so that fish populations remain at about that level.

The evidence that fish are important regulators of ecosystem processes is particularly strong in coral reefs.  The abundance and variety of fish is one of the most striking aspects of a healthy coral reef.  Some species transport energy and nutrients between seagrass meadows and the reefs.  Grazing fish species on a healthy coral reef keep seaweeds that would otherwise over-grow the reef in check.   Predators regulate populations of prey species, responding to natural variability by adjusting their feeding rates and numbers.  On a healthy reef, many different species occupy each of these niches, and each does their job in a slightly different way.  This enables the reef to resist threats and other changes (like hurricanes) and to recover from very storms or human impacts, within limits of course. Read More »

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