Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Does the Aquarium Raise Fish?

The NC Aquarium at Fort Fisher is home to thousands of fish and many people wonder where they all come from. There are many different ways the Husbandry staff populates exhibits. We are often asked if we raise our own fish, and the answer is yes. Fort Fisher staff is researching and working on new ways to grow fish from egg to adult within the Aquarium.

While on exhibit, animals ideally show natural behaviors which often involve laying eggs. There are three main ways fish reproduce. Some fish are bearers, when one parent internally carries the eggs through development. Others are demersal spawners, laying eggs in a nest and guarding them until they hatch.  Lastly, pelagic spawners release millions of eggs to be fertilized as they flow though the ocean. Many aquariums, including Fort Fisher, have succeeded in raising the larvae and fry (baby fish) from bearers and demersal spawners, like our amazing seahorses, small neon gobies and stingrays. However, the majority of Aquarium fish are pelagic spawners. There are many opportunities to raise fish going (literally) down the drain.

Recently, we began a project to collect and raise some of these free-floating eggs. The healthy, fertilized eggs float to the top of the water. Specially built collecting equipment skims the top layer of water, collecting hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of eggs.

Larval rearing system at NCAFF
Pelagic eggs hatch within 24 hours from being released. When the eggs hatch, the larvae are very small and undeveloped.  A special holding tank was developed to keep them gently moving as if in the ocean currents. Initially, there is no need to be concerned about food because the larvae have no mouths. Instead, they feed from an attached yolk for the first few days. When they begin eating, things get a little tricky. Fish larvae are picky eaters. The food has to be the right type, size, and even speed for them to go after it. They survive mostly on algae and copepods (tiny crustaceans).

Juvenile blue striped grunt from eggs collected in April

It takes a lot of trial and error to hatch and grow the pelagic eggs. So far, the Fort Fisher Husbandry staff has had success with blue striped grunt; collecting eggs from our largest exhibit, the Cape Fear Shoals, and raising the fish behind the scenes. We have collected many types of eggs from the Shoals and other exhibits. Each attempt moves us closer to a goal of raising more fish in a sustainable way at the Aquarium. 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Protect Yourself from Rip Current Dangers


You think about many things when going to the beach— sunscreen, chairs and the perfect parking spot. But you may not think about one of the most dangerous things about swimming in the ocean - rip currents.

Rip currents form when a low spot or break develops in a sandbar close to shore. This forces ocean water through a narrow opening out to sea and creates a channel of water flowing away from shore that can extend hundreds of yards offshore. Rip currents can occur any time at the beach but are most dangerous during high surf and high wave conditions.

Rip current at Carolina Beach, NC Photo courtesy of NOAA,
via Carolina Beach Police Department

Rip currents are the leading surf hazard for beach goers, particularly dangerous for weak or non-swimmers. Their speed is generally one to two feet per second but water speeds can reach as high as eight feet per second - faster than an Olympic swimmer can sprint. More than 100 drownings a year occur in the United States due to rip currents. Rip currents are also the cause of the majority of water rescues.

Rip currents can be tricky to spot on the beach. Here are a few things to look for:
  • A channel of churning, choppy water moving perpendicular from shore
  • An area of light, sandy color water different from the surrounding ocean water
  • Sea foam or debris moving steadily out to sea 
  • A break in the incoming wave pattern

 
photo credit: NOAA
  
 If caught in a rip current, keep these things in mind:
  • Don’t Panic. Remain calm to help you think clearly and conserve energy.
  • Don’t fight the current. Swim out of the current in a direction parallel to shore. Once out of the current’s pull, start to swim towards the shore.
  • Draw Attention. If you are unable to reach shore, draw attention to yourself so lifeguards and other beachgoers will spot you. Face shore, wave your arms and yell for help. If you are at the beach and notice someone in trouble, notify a lifeguard or call 911. Try throwing something that floats to the victim and yell instructions on how to escape the current. Do not try to rescue the person yourself. Many people drown attempting to save someone else.



Another useful tool to guard against rip current dangers are warning flags often flown by lifeguards. Different colors communicate rip current risk to swimmers. Observe the flag warnings and swim where lifeguard patrol the beaches.
  • Green means low risk.
  • Yellow indicates a moderate risk. Weak swimmers are discouraged from entering the water. 
  • Red warns of a high rip current risk with high wave and surf action. This category implies all swimming in the surf is life threatening.

Before visiting the beach check out the local National Weather Service website for rip current risks. In southeastern North Carolina, the NWS office out of Moorhead City prepares a map to highlight the rip current risk for our area.

To learn more about rip currents, visit the National Oceanographic Atmosphere Administration’s rip current overview siteHere you will find videos, games and more information about rip currents. 

Monday, July 14, 2014

Four Ways You Can Help a Sea Turtle

Sea turtles face many obstacles throughout their lives. Crabs, foxes and other natural predators dig up nests and eat the eggs. As hatchlings emerge from the nest, they are vulnerable to sea gulls and large fish as they enter the ocean.  As the turtles grow, they face other predators such as sharks.  These natural threats help keep sea turtle populations in balance.

Green sea turtle hatching. Photo credit: R. LeGuen
Unfortunately, sea turtles also face many human-created challenges.  Changing coastlines by erosion and replenishment can have both a positive and negative effect.  Large holes dug in beach sand can trap a nesting mother or hatchling turtles. Items left on the beach like tents, chairs and trash can prevent the turtles from getting to the water or a nesting site. If turtles ingest the trash, they can become ill. Bright lights from homes or businesses left on at night can disorient turtles emerging from a nest and cause them to move inland instead of to the ocean.  Once in the water, sea turtles face the threat of marine debris. They may eat it or become entangled in it.  Boat strikes also pose a danger, as do fishing nets and hooks.

Young loggerhead sea turtle at the N.C. Aquarium at Fort Fisher.
Photo credit: NCAFF
Due mostly to human activities, sea turtle populations have declined. All species found in United States waters are classified as threatened or endangered and are protected by the Endangered Species Act.

You can help protect sea turtles with these four simple actions:
Turn off the lights. If you live on the beach or are visiting, turn off your porch lights at night or install turtle friendly lighting (which may be as simple as using a light bulb of a certain color wavelength). 
Clean up. After a fun beach day, fill in any holes dug. Pack up everything you brought and dispose of all trash in proper receptacles. 
Slow down. Watch for turtles when out boating and slow down if you see any. Also, secure items in your boat so they don’t fly out and retrieve anything that does.
Make a call.  If you see an injured sea turtle or one caught in a net or by a hook, call the sea turtle emergency hotline in your state.

You can find additional information on the National Marine Fisheries website under the Office of Protected Resources or at the North Carolina Sea Turtle Project .  

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Plastics, Marine Debris and a Healthy Ocean

It’s no secret, the ocean is a wonderful place. We use it for recreation, to support our economy through tourism and seafood, and it serves as a home for thousands of species of wildlife from the largest whales to smallest microorganisms. A healthy ocean matters.

The Ocean is not as healthy as it once was. One of the major reasons is marine debris. Marine debris is anything floating in the ocean that doesn't belong there. Sometimes it’s left there on purpose but most often it ends up in the water accidentally. The less plastic we use, the smaller our impact on the planet. Many ocean creatures are injured or killed by plastic through entanglement or by ingesting it.

No matter how far you live from the ocean, you can do something about marine debris.  Since the majority of marine debris is plastic, we can keep plastic out of the oceans by reducing the amount of plastic in our lives

Four R’s Can Help

Refuse to use unnecessary plastic. This may be the most important step in keeping plastic out of the ocean. Refuse single use, disposable plastics. Start small - refuse one piece of plastic a day.
     · Say no to straws for your drinks. You can purchase glass or stainless steel straws to keep handy.
     · Politely decline a plastic bag for one or two items you can easily carry. Carry a reusable bag and remember to keep  it with you.
     ·  Don’t accept plastic bags for takeout food.
     · Forget single use cups. Buy a reusable cup or bottle and fill it up. Many places will give you a discount for having your own cup.

Reduce the amount of plastic you use. Do a survey of plastic items that you use every day. Keep track for two weeks. What items can you do without?

Once you’re ready to seriously kick plastic out of your life, check out this website.

Reuse it. Plastic is a part of everyday life and not always easy to avoid. When you find yourself with plastics, be creative in ways to reuse. Find ways to reuse plastic bottles with clever ideas such as bird feeders, decorative flower planters, and art projects. Use plastic bags as trash can liners, wet clothing holder, dog walking clean up devices, and even art projects. Search the web for other, creative ways to reuse a variety of plastics. Check out suggestions on the Aquarium’s Pinterest page!

Recycle it. Finally, if you can’t refuse, reduce, or reuse plastic, then recycle it. Plastics can’t all be recycled the same way. Plastic bags can often go back to the store to be recycled. Learn more here.

Other types of plastic need special attention, too, such as bottle caps. Learn more here

Make the 4 R’s part of your life and do your part to keep the Ocean healthy. If you’d like to do more to help with Marine Debris check out the Marine Debris Tracker app from the University of Georgia.


Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Your Blooming Butterfly Garden

Blooming with color and activity, the Butterfly Bungalow at the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher prompts curious guests to wonder how they can create their own butterfly garden. Here are a few suggestions to establish a beautiful space both you and native butterflies will appreciate.


First, a large planting area is not necessary. Cultivating a special place for these winged wonders can be achieved with only a few plants or a significant plot of land. Yet, planting both host plants and nectar-producing plants together allows the greatest range of activity. Nectar-producing plants act as the butterflies’ food source, while host plants provide a place where they lay their eggs and provide food for caterpillars.

Examples of nectar-producing plants
    Coneflowers                                                                               Aster  
    Blanket flower                                                                            Lavender 
    Golden rod                                                                                 Lantana

                                          Examples of host plants
     Parsley                                                                                       Snapdragon
     Milkweed                                                                                   Dill
     Clover                                                                                        Dogwood

See the following website for a chart of host plants per species:



Be sure to take note of what conditions each plant favors and if they are a good fit for your yard. Milkweed, a well-known attractant for monarch butterflies, persists in full sun and in dry soil. If your yard is generally shady or damp, this may not be a good choice. Instead, try honeysuckles or impatiens for nectar and possibly spicebush as a host plant, as they prefer moist soil and can thrive in partial shade.

In addition to plants, one should also consider placing rocks for the butterflies to warm themselves on. Butterflies are cold-blooded and rely on the sun to warm their muscles so they can fly. If their body temperature drops below 86ยบ F, they will not be able to fly. Large rocks gather heat from the sun and can be placed around your garden for butterflies to rest and warm up.


On the other hand, butterflies can become too hot and may be seen in wet sand or muddy areas, taking part in an activity called puddling. During this event, the insects collect needed minerals from the soil to supplement their diet. To promote puddling in your yard, a partially-filled bird bath would do the trick. Also, one could place a pan in a shallow hole filled with sand or soil; just make sure to keep it moist.

Surprisingly, some butterflies prefer rotten fruit over nectar, so placing fruit in a suspended dish, away from the ants, can be beneficial to your garden. Make sure to also keep this moist to attract the butterflies. Spraying the fruit with orange juice is a great way to keep it moist.

Chemical pesticides may be contributing, in part, to the decline of butterfly populations around the world. Fortunately,  natural or organic insecticides, pesticides, and fertilizers can be effectively used.
                                      
Examples of natural pesticides
Clover                                                                                        Neem oil
Garlic                                                                                         Copper
Lavender                                                                                    Sulfur

A great list can be found at the following website:

If you’ve already created a butterfly garden, tell us about your successes and challenges. Include where you live, as different plants thrive in different areas. How did you cultivate a beautiful natural space for butterflies and other pollinators?  What worked well for you? What would you do differently?


Thursday, December 12, 2013

Bimini, Bahamas Collecting Trip 2013


  
Aquarium husbandry staff took to the seas and to the tropical waters of the Bahamas this fall. Despite the postcard beauty of their surroundings, the team worked for nine days as part of a multi-facility, permitted initiative. AZA-accredited facilities have developed a relationship with the Commonwealth of the Bahamas to help manage natural resources through research and sustainable practices. Keep reading for trip highlights documented by Aquarist Julie Johnson, illustrated by photos and videos from Aquarium Curator Hap Fatzinger and Dive Safety Officer Brian Germick.

Day 1
After deciding that it would be wiser to get on the road sooner rather than later, we loaded up our Outreach vehicle and headed south late Saturday night.  With some rain and mist to battle, we drove 12-plus hours to sunny Miami.  Meeting up with the folks from Albuquerque and New England we unloaded our gear and started preparing the Coral Reef II, a research collecting vessel, for the trip.



Day 2
Began the day by re-bedding two sand filters in the lazzarete (in the boat hull), and then cleaned out the holding tanks.  We disinfected the tanks and drained them.  They will not be refilled with saltwater until we are out in the open ocean.  Our productive morning was soon slowed down by some heavy downpours.  There is only so much you can do on a boat in the rain.

Day 3
As it turns out we are leaving port late this evening after the arrival of some of the trip’s private sponsors.  So we took the opportunity to do a little research for an upcoming exhibit and visited Tradewinds Park Butterfly World.

Day 4
We left port at 3:30 a.m.  Can’t say we saw much because it was dark once we left Miami and sleep seemed to be the better choice.  When we woke up it was a beautiful day, with the dark blue ocean surrounding us. 
The boat passed a lot of Sargassum mats, thankfully not full of trash.  Once we cleared customs in Bimini and received our safety information, we headed over to Bimini Road.  We did our check out dive there and took the opportunity to collect some specimens.  Since the weather turned on us we stayed and did a second dive.  On the list of specimens brought up were glasseye snappers, squirrelfish, sharpnose puffers, trumpetfish, foureye butterfly, spotted scorpionfish, and hogfish.  We observed a sharksucker hanging out. They are rather interesting animals and look rather odd without a “host” to hang on to. 
Then we moved spots and dove in some nasty current and rain.  This site was just teaming with fish, including several species of butterfly fish, chromis and cardinalfish.  We observed lionfish, spiny lobster, a large cushion star and barracuda. 
After each dive we carefully identify the animals and then record how many there are and what holding tanks they are placed in.


Day 5
We returned to the reef we dove yesterday afternoon, and fighting against a decent current, collected more squirrelfish, chromis, etc.  Then we moved to a shipwreck and did three dives on this site. 
The first dive proved challenging as we attempted, unsuccessfully, to corral several hogfish.  Not to be beat by the fish, we dove again this time concentrating on bluestripe grunts.  In between dives, hook and line fishing proved to be productive.  We caught grunts and, unfortunately, several ocean triggerfish (beautiful, but not something we wanted to keep and several broke the line). 
Lastly, we ended the day with a night dive.  We managed to catch angelfish, hogfish, filefish and several crabs, all the while trying not to disturb the sleeping loggerhead sea turtles. The barracuda that were present during the day had all gone.  The ocean triggerfish were tucked into any hole they could find.  A nurse shark was slightly annoyed at our repeated presence throughout the day.


Day 6
After a quick check on our charges, a light feed, and a backwash, it was time to get to our first dive site.  A section of rocks/corals were our location for the day.  After an interesting first dive, we moved sights to catch copper sweepers, which are known to inhabit an overhang.  So with a game plan in place we descended upon this school of several hundred fish.  Divers were placed at every hole to catch fish, while other divers waited with back-up collecting nets.  Within 15 minutes we had our animals, as we did not need many.  We spent the rest of the dive looking for other animals on our wish list.  We spotted several sand tilefish.  So our third dive we enlisted the help of Captain Lou and chased down several sand tilefish.  That may not seem like a lot but each fish was at least 5 to 10 minutes of corralling.  Our last dive was in the same location. We managed to get some banded coral shrimp, black barred soldierfish and triggerfish.


Day 7
Today we started out with a seining trip.  This involved a one hundred foot seine net, several coolers with bubblers, and 15 people being transported to a stretch of beach.  After three very successful pulls of the seine, which included beaters (people making a lot of noise and splashing the water to keep fish in the area), we collected some mojarra, flounder, parrotfish, and filefish.
 Then we moved offshore and did two amazing dives.  The first was on a wreck with a wicked current.  It was a struggle but we managed to catch several blackfin snapper each requiring 2-3 divers to herd, some angelfish and cardinalfish.   Our second dive was on a beautiful reef called Frank and John’s Reef.  We collected pygmy angelfish, a balloonfish, and several others.  Many of the fish on the reef were species we had already cataloged.  It was tricky collecting as there were many crevices for the fish to dart into.  There were yellowtail snapper present, which were caught on hook and line. 
The day ended with another seine trip which produced doctorfish, barracuda, some grunts and several small scorpionfish.  A lemon shark managed to get itself caught up in the net after trying to steal some fish.  The shark was easily freed and left without its stolen meal.  Then several of us took a quick snorkel and saw a large school of bonefish, catching them proved futile.

Day 8
As the trip nears the end, our dives become more focused on specific animals.  Our first dive of the day started with looking for Sargassum triggerfish, a beautiful fish prone to ducking in a hole and locking itself in, at almost 90 feet down. This limited our dive time.  We did manage to catch several.  Due to the depth, the animals were put in a barrel and brought up slowly over the course of an hour to allow them to adjust to the pressure.
 Our second dive was for Creole wrasses which school over a certain section of reef.  We had to work together to herd them.  The third dive produced a random collection of blackfin snapper, black durgon and chromis.  We ended the day with a night dive on the shipwreck, the Sapona, which is only in 14-feet of water and much of it is above the water.  Unfortunately we had to fight a heavy current to get to it.  We were able to catch 2 very nice-sized porcupinefish, a bunch of cardinalfish and butterflyfish.

Day 9
On our way to clear customs in Bimini, we stopped to say hello to some friends who joined us.  Two adult spotted dolphins and their calves.  They seemed just as interested in us as we were in them.  The mothers appeared to be doing some hunting behaviors in the sand, with the calves mimicking them. 
After a quick half an hour on land, the first time in a week, we went to go do one last dive.  Although we were through collecting, the captain took us to a spot known for sharks.  We saw several Caribbean reef sharks at the site among many other fish.  We also took the opportunity to do a fish count as part of PADI project AWARE.
Julie, Hap and Brian

After lunch we set out for Miami.  About two hours into our crossing we came upon a large mat of Sargassum.  Not to pass up any opportunity, we stopped and several of us snorkeled in it.  It was beautiful, with a large school of rainbow runners under it, and many fish in it.  When we cleared customs, it was time to pack fish.  We started at 10:45 p.m. and finished around 2 a.m.  Then it was off to the Fort Lauderdale Airport to ship Albuquerque’s fish. Our long trek home followed.  When we reached Kure Beach, it was after 9 p.m. Although the end of the trip was exhausting, it was an amazing experience.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Name Me!


Meet CM06. Wait. What?

Peek into the Cape Fear Shoals, the Aquarium's largest exhibit, to see this gregarious green sea turtle. One minute, the juvenile turtle is observing visitors at the windows. The next it's using a rocky outcropping to give itself a back, er, shell rub. Yet, despite its antics the turtle has officially been known as CM06 for several years.

Obviously, CM06 doesn't stand for "catchy moniker." CM actually stands for Chelonia mydas, the scientific name for greens. The 06 refers to the number of the hatchling when it was excavated from a late season nest found on Emerald Isle in 2010. At that time the animal was suffering from a respiratory infection and additional medical issues. Aquarium staff treated the animal and in their care it has thrived. Now you have a chance to give the sea turtle a name with some character.

Aquarium staff selected three names for the public to vote on: Emerald, Jade and Sheldon. You can vote for your favorite until August 5 here.

Visitors to the Aquarium can also cast a vote for their pick through a monetary donation. One dollar equals one vote and benefits Aquarium conservation and education efforts. The winning name will be unveiled during an Aquarium dive show the week of August 5.

Learn more about CM06 and its early days here.

Here are a few facts about green sea turtles you may not know:
  • Green sea turtles are threatened in North Carolina and endangered in other parts of the United States.
  • Greens hold their breath longer than any of the seven sea turtle species.
  • Greens love to bask in the sun. These turtles can often be seen sunning on the beaches in Hawaii and Australia.
  • Adult greens live on a vegetarian diet. Eating only plants turns their fat a green color. This is why they are known as greens.