Travel Report: Luis Malpica Cruz, Biology

April 11, 2014

Luis Malpica Cruz, a PhD Candidate in Biology, received a Graduate International Research Travel Award to further his research in the Bahamas. His report:

From late April to late July of 2013 I conducted coral reef research in the Island of Eleuthera, The Bahamas. The main goal of my project was to assess how the lionfish predation and habitat complexity of different reef sites alters the food web structure of reef fish communities. This is part of my PhD thesis dissertation at SFU Biology working in The Marine Ecology Lab under the supervision of Dr. Isabelle Côté. But first, who is this infamous lionfish? The lionfish is a predatory invasive fish native to the Indo Pacific who by means of the aquarium trade and irresponsible disposal by owners made its way to the Northeastern Atlantic and Caribbean where is now present in great numbers. Studies show that lionfish in the invaded range can severely affect the abundance and density of native fish species. Understanding the effects of this invasion will provide data to develop sound management strategies.

To achieve this I will use a technique known as stable isotope analysis, which uses micro chemical markers to track dietary sources through different food web levels and primary producer sources.  However to be able to use this fancy technique I first needed fish samples. The collaborative nature of my project required the least destructive sampling possible, so I killed no fish, just got small fin clips, which was great! But it also made it a bit more complicated.

I was not alone in this endeavor, I had two awesome field assistants: Severin Vaillancourt, an undergrad from SFU Biology; and Silvan Goldenberg, who recently completed an Erasmus Mundus Master in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation. We were based at the Cape Eluthera Institute, a wonderful research station that provides logistic assistance to researchers all over the world, as well as field courses and expeditions to students of different levels.

During our stay and using a lot of creativity and useful fishing skills from members of our team we used, learned and developed several fishing methods: baited cages, underwater hook and line, clove oiling, “fish kettling”, among others, but the most complex from a team effort perspective was “fish herding”, to an external observer we must have looked very funny, swimming around the reef patch waiving two hand-nets each and chasing fishes as if they were butterflies.

After a step learning curve to capture fish we were able to catch up to 50-60 individuals of up to 30 different species from 16 reef sites. After close to 85 days on the field, 84 boat hours, 185 air tanks consumed, ~4403 minutes underwater, 850 individual fish samples, 150 marine plant samples, ~100 lionfish removed from reefs or speared, 50 cassava chip bags consumed, 6 pairs of sunglasses destroyed or lost in action, ~30 m of fishing line, ~15 fishing hooks, 0 boat incidents and 0 lionfish stabs incidents, my field season was over. I had a great time, learned a lot and would not have been able to do it without the support of my great official and unofficial field assistants as well as from the support of a Graduate International Research Travel Award from SFU.

The samples obtained are currently being processed and I will send them for stable isotope analysis this spring. Data obtained will be used to better understand the trophic interaction of reef fish as well as to assess impacts of lionfish on food web interactions.


Photo Credits: Severin Vaillancourt

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