Aileen Devlin/The Daily Reflector
East Carolina Graduate students Evan Knight, left, and Walt Rogers work to remove otoliths from an Alewife or River Herring at Flanagan Building. They are practicing the anatomic way to retrieve the same info collected by the Wave Glider’s yearlong and thousands of miles traveled missions. Monday, Jan. 28, 2013. (Aileen Devlin/The Daily Reflector)
By Michael Abramowitz
Tuesday, January 29, 2013
The great white shark tracked last week inside the Pamlico Sound ranks as one of the more spectacular local marine occurrences, but a 4-inch herring might be far more important to North Carolina’s marine ecology and commercial fisheries system.
Scientists and graduate students at East Carolina University’s biology department, led by Roger Rulifson, a professor and senior scientist with the Institute for Coastal Science and Policy, are studying the alewife and blue back herring, known collectively as river herring, which are headed toward endangered species classification.
“In inland and coastal waters, it’s illegal to even possess one,” Rulifson said. “We had a permit to collect them from the ocean for study. Their numbers have dipped dramatically all along the Eastern Seaboard.”
Some students were busy Monday afternoon in the laboratory removing alewife ear bones, called otoliths, for specific information stored within them.
“We blast them with a laser beam and determine the elements gathered in them from early life until the time they are caught,” Rulifson said. “This tells us the watershed in which they are born. If we can identify which watersheds are contributing to the success of the species, we can then determine what is missing from the watersheds they are supposed to be inhabiting.”
River herring, which are anadromous, or ocean fish that spawn in fresh water, normally locate at specific coastal watersheds for eating, breeding and other life functions, the scientists said. But the fish are being pinpointed at unexpected locations. The connection between their dwindling populations and unusual locations could tell scientists what they need to know to push for effective restoration of healthier conditions along North Carolina’s coastal waters, Rulifson said.
The scientists look at large-scale migratory movements of fish like the herring, striped bass, Atlantic sturgeon and sharks, and small-scale movements like their activities inside North Carolina’s inlets and streams to create models of behavior, Rulifson said. They also study individual fish and their habits to learn what their differences say about the population’s health.
“They are like the canary in the coal mine,” he said.
Local anadromous species like the river herring react to the combination of slight temperature rise and extended drought conditions by changing their spawning schedules and cramming species together, which can have interesting results, like hybridized fish species, Rulifson said.
“They are evolving right before our eyes, with conditions that were separate now overlapping and causing funny things to happen,” he said.
The health of small watersheds and the fish swimming in them is important to the overall health of the entire region, Rulifson said. Learning the exact contributors to marine health conditions is vital to prescribing remedial care, he said.
The tools of the trade for locating fish for study range from hook, line and sinker to the Wave Glider, an automated, unmanned and self-propelled marine sampling platform that looks like a surf board rigged with scientific instruments.
Funding for the science Rulifson and his colleagues conduct, mostly from government grants, is becoming as difficult to locate than the rare fish they seek, he said.
“With the fiscal cliff and the current economic climate, it becomes more and more difficult to find research dollars,” he said. “Most of our funds come from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Marine Fisheries Service and the state legislature through the Fisheries Resource Grant Program. That grant has become increasingly important, and I hope they will continue it.”
The grant award, once $1 million per year, has shrunk to about $100,000 per year, he said. It allows scientists to partner with local sport fishing boats to get out to where the science is happening.
“It’s an important partnership of the fishermen’s experience and the scientists’ knowledge,” Rulifson said.
Contact Michael Abramowitz at firstname.lastname@example.org or 252-329-9571.
via The Daily Reflector.