Friday, May 24, 2019

Students help make stocking home aquariums more sustainable

            As the rhythm of aquarium pumps echoed through the aquaculture laboratory at the Marine Science Magnet High School of Southeastern Connecticut, senior Hannah Roby reached her hand into a 10-gallon fish tank containing clownfish, corals and other creatures to conduct routine maintenance. It’s an activity she does just about every day as part of her aquatic husbandry course. But it’s also one element of a research project she and her fellow students are engaged in to help make the home aquarium industry more sustainable.
            About 22 million fish of 1,800 species are captured on coral reefs around the world each year to meet the demand from hobbyists who maintain marine aquariums at home, and about half of those fish are sold in the United States.
            “We don’t know if that level of take is sustainable, and we don’t know the conservation status of most of those species,” said Paul Anderson, a research scientist at Mystic Aquarium,
who advises the students. “There are destructive fishing practices happening, like poisoning reefs and dynamiting reefs, which are having devastating consequences for the fish and the coral.”
            When Mystic Aquarium sought to help figure out how to improve the sustainability of the home aquarium hobby, it turned to Roby and her fellow students in Groton. The prestigious school’s aquaculture lab, managed by teachers Eric Litvinoff and Michael Guyot, features dozens of tanks from 10 to 600 gallons in size that are used for classroom lessons as well as for research collaborations.
            “The lab was designed to be adaptable to do whatever we wanted to do to give students the opportunity to learn about aquaculture,” said Litvinoff. “Right now it’s set up for coral aquaculture, because that’s what the students are most interested in.”
            While some of the larger tanks are being used to raise barramundi and trout for sale at
local fish markets, the main focus of the lab is on developing improved methods for raising ornamental fish in captivity to reduce the need to capture fish from the wild.
            “If aquaculture can take some of the pressure off the reefs, then everyone will be better off,” Litvinoff said. “As an educator, it allows me to integrate real-world research with my students so they’re given exposure to what’s happening at the highest levels.”
            One recent project involved testing methods for breeding royal grammas, a popular purple and yellow tropical fish that seldom reproduces in captivity. The fish live in harems in the wild, so the students conducted tests to determine the optimal ratio of males and females to get them to produce the most young.
            Now the students are gearing up to test a new aquaculture feed designed for juvenile fish. Cobalt Aquatics, which makes the feed, requested that their product be tested as an alternative to feeding the fish the live food they prefer – tiny marine creatures called zooplankton.
According to Roby, who lives in Griswold, one of the challenges to breeding and raising clownfish is that it necessitates raising large quantities of zooplankton to feed the young clownfish. Large quantities of phytoplankton – microscopic marine plants – must also be raised in adjacent tanks to feed the zooplankton. To reduce this complexity, the students are preparing to try out the new food pellets on the young clownfish in hopes of eliminating the need for the zooplankton and phytoplankton.
            “Larval fish have really bad eyesight,” said Roby, who plans a career in aquaculture research after college, “but the Cobalt pellets are easy for them to see because it floats slowly in front of their face. Hopefully it will do the trick.”
            In another corner of the lab, students grow vegetables using the techniques of aquaponics, whereby waste produced by fish in adjacent tanks supplies nutrients to the plants.
            Guyot, who worked at Mystic Aquarium before becoming an aquaculture teacher at the school three years ago. said that projects like these help his students develop “an appreciation for things that are often overlooked. Things like coral. Most people just think of them as pretty rocks, but when you gain an appreciation for it, you realize how delicate their ecosystem is. If we can get that information to our students and they share it with their families, more and more people will come to care about things they didn’t know they should care about.”
            In addition, the lab also produces an enthusiastic group of future aquarium professionals.
            “The students get hands-on experience in the lab and can later enter the aquarium industry and be part of the skilled workforce that takes proper care of fish at retail or aquaculture facilities,” said Anderson. “We’ve already had students go on to marine science studies in college and enter the workforce.”
            Anthony DiPasquale, a senior from Old Saybrook, said it was the aquaculture lab and the research opportunities it offered that attracted him to the Marine Science Magnet High School. “I got interested in aquaculture because I see it as a really interesting way of combining what I love about the ocean – I’m big into fishing – with a way of helping the environment. From what I’ve learned here, aquaculture might be the future of food production, and it’s also a really cool thing to learn about.”
This article first appeared in the 2019 Connecticut Education Guide.

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