Aquaculture Class Trip to Panama: Pacific Side Complete

The RSMAS Aquaculture crew departed from Panama City, leaving the sounds of honking horns, smell of exhaust fumes, and the view of towering sky liners way behind us as we made our way to the Azuero Peninsula to the Province of Los Santos, Panama.

As the bus made its final stop after the 7-hour journey I anxiously peered out the window to take in what was to be our home for the next two weeks. I had seen pictures of the Achotines Laboratory online and was already excited about the stay, but as I looked around I realized it was exceeding my expectations. There were large open areas of green framed by jungle foliage and mango trees galore. Farther off I can see the bay leading to the open ocean – our backyard for the next two weeks. Two dogs greeted us, an old boxer who had more spirit about her than a child at Disney World, and a big smiling black labrador, who by the looks of it would definitely be putting her charms at work for table scraps later on. Geese and guineas (think chickens from another galaxy) roamed the place. I was to find out later they all served the purpose of controlling the scorpion population – whereby I quickly discarded any thoughts I may have had of making them dinner.

We quickly settled in and made our way to the heart of the lab, the Yellowfin Tuna broodstock and larval rearing areas. Unfortunately, the tuna had not spawned for our arrival which is highly uncommon. Yet the larval tanks were full of 5 to 9 day old bouncing baby tunas just begging the RSMAS Aquaculture team to get their hands on them. If you would have taken someone off the streets to ask them what they were looking at in those larval tanks, their guesses would have been very far from anything that resembles a fish. In the larval tanks what one saw was hundreds and hundreds of little black dots arranged in groups of three, two little dots for the eyes, and 1 little dot representative of the stomach. First thing I learned… Yellowfin tuna larvae are all eyes and stomach (and a large mouth invisible to the naked eye)… I liked them already. The broodstock tank, where they keep the parents, was of an impressive size and function. The tank is 17 meters in diameter and 6 meters deep. Tuna are ram ventilators and must continuously swim to get the oxygen they need. This tank had a strong vortex in the middle showing that these tuna were enjoying a nice consistent current of water. I personally know of an orca whale that would scoff at the size of the tank these yellowfin tuna call home. It is worth the time and investment in keeping any type of farm animal (land and water) in healthy and happy environments. A happy tuna is a tasty tuna!

A few days had gone by and to our dismay there was still no spawn. We kept ourselves busy with the larvae that had welcomed us there. Fellow aquaculturists from Hawaii’s Blue Ocean Mariculture had joined us, one of them a past RSMAS student of Dr. Benetti. Together we did some passive transfers whereby dropping the water level of a larval tank and using a large tubing, a suction is created from the tank where the larvae currently reside into a brand new, bacteria free, clean tank. The larvae simply cruise into the new tank just like “Crush” the turtle and “Squirt” from Finding Nemo cruised the East Australian current. There was also a trial done on the live feeds, specifically artemia (baby brine shrimp) to test the effectiveness of a product whose purpose is to control for bacteria, specifically vibrio, in the hatching and enriching of the artemia fed to larvae and post larvae. We plated samples of both the control artemia and the treated artemia. The results were outstanding as there was a clear distinction between the treated versus the untreated artemia on the plates, yellow gunk growing wild all over the control plate versus little to no specks of yellow dots on the experimental plate, the results were conclusive to say the least. Other areas we experimented with was 24-hour lighting in an attempt to keep the fish active and eating versus lights off throughout the night, and also feeding continuously versus scheduled feeding times where large amounts are fed at once.

The mornings at the Achotines Laboratory, as in most hatcheries, were the busiest. Our afternoons allowed for leisure time to explore the beaches and rocks off both sides of the pier. The team enjoyed a brisk hike through what I considered “the jungle,” I decided it qualified as a jungle the moment the sound of howler monkeys and other creatures first began to bounce off the trees. One morning as we were enjoying breakfast we received the pleasant surprise visit of white capuchin monkeys in the trees steps away from us. My roommate and I soon realized there are also disadvantages to having wild monkeys in the vicinity. We received ear-splitting courtesy wakeup calls outside our window at 4 and 5 in the morning, but later I would step out of the room to the scene of them playing and leaping from branch to branch and would easily forget that I ever wanted to thrust large heavy objects into the trees.

The Achotines Laboratory staff were eager to make this a great experience for all of us, from the women who prepared our meals, to the hatchery guys, all the way to Vern who manages the lab. At all times they were generous in accommodating the RSMAS group and making sure everything was running smooth. They took us on detailed tours of the broodstock system from the intake, to the pumps, through the filters, all the way into the tank. Vern took his time to give presentations on the lab and the Yellowfin Tuna. But the highlight of the trip was when we were having a bad day fishing and from afar the boat driver spotted a pair of Humpback whales. He went out of his way to trail down the whales for a good hour giving us some great photo opps and an experience of a lifetime. It was my first time ever seeing whales in the wild and it could not have been more incredible! With that inspiring token from the sea, the first week of our Aquaculture class trip to Panama came to a close.

Melissa Pelaez
Master of Professional Science: Aquaculture
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Aquaculture Class Trip to Panama: Fishing for Broodstock Takes a Turn

At the Achotines Laboratory in Panama, Yellowfin Tuna broodstock are replaced as older tuna parents become ill or pass away. On the morning of July 13th, I set off with two of my Aquaculture RSMAS colleagues (Jonathan Van Senten and Edissa Palacios) on a fishing trip for broodstock. It was a beautiful morning. The sea was calm, the clouds lay sleepily on the landscape, the sun still hidden behind the clouds was very slowly making its way into the sky above. We headed to the boat with our fishing guide from the Achotines Lab who went by the nickname “In.” The boat at first glance did not inspire much confidence. It was simply a hull with chipped faded colors of white, blue, and yellow. The main component being the livewell, situated towards the center, and with the dual function of serving as seats. The 60hp engine was propped in the back attached to a shaft to direct the boat.

We set off straight out of the bay about 20 minutes towards a large island of rocks where a lighthouse admirably stood. We had reached our fishing grounds. Rods in hand we cast our baitless hooks into the sea as our driver led the boat at a slow pace back and forth behind the island of rocks following diving seabirds and leaping fish. Within a few minutes I heard the ‘Zzziiip’ of a line behind me. Edissa, a fellow aquaculturist from Peru, had snagged something. “In” killed the motor as we began bringing up our lines while Edissa reeled and fought to get her catch in the boat. Lo and behold she had caught a feisty bonito. Bonito is a silvery fish, sort of resembling a small tuna, but is a much less tasty version of a tuna. We threw it in the cooler and continued on.

Two hours went by and it was still a string of bonitos that kept tugging on our lines. By this time the sun had finally made it’s appearance and had warmed the cool morning air. Bonito after bonito we began to tire. Then when we had almost given up hope there was another ‘Zzziiip’ from Edissa’s line and this time at the end of it was a flapping Yellowfin Tuna, broodstock quality. Yeah! This little guy went into the livewell and with our spirits revitalized we continued on. Shortly after we caught another one, but since it was badly hooked it was tossed in the cooler for tomorrow’s dinner, this was half a win.

Another hour and a half went by, the bonito had stopped biting, and with the sun glaring into our open hull we decided it was time to call it a day and head back. I was discouraged, even the bonito did not humor me with at least a few fights. I had caught a total of two bonitos and nothing that was worthy of a meal. I sat on the edge of the livewell moping over the lack of fish I had reeled in. My stomach protesting that it must be lunchtime. I was lost in thoughts when “In” shouted “ballena!” Far off to the left of us was a huge splash of water, it looked like a geyser erupted in the middle of the ocean, and right after another geyser. They were “ballena jorobadas,” humpback whales in english. I jumped to my feet, fumbling for my camera, with a burst of excitement replacing the hunger I had just felt. Never have I had the privilege of seeing any type of whale in the ocean. I had hoped to see dolphins at some point during the morning, but a whale, especially two humpback whales was more than a privilege, it was a blessing from the sea.

Left to right: Jonathan Van Senten, Melissa Pelaez, and Edissa Palacios

They were really far off from our boat. I figured it would not be practical to head so far in the opposite direction from our bay to get a closer look. I tried focusing as close as possible with my camera but all I could see were two grey humps far off in the distance, and then they were gone. This unexpected glimpse of humpback whales on the horizon had made my day, and as I took my seat back on the livewell “In” our boat captain looked to us and said, “I think they’re headed that way,” as he pointed somewhere in the distance, “Do you want to get closer?” I’m sure I smiled the dopiest of smiles, from ear to ear, as I nodded and sprang back up, camera in hand.

We all stood up on guard looking out into different areas of the sea. The pair of humpbacks would come up, twirl around a bit, and then again they were gone. It was a game of cat and mouse but we were getting closer. For about 35 minutes we were playing hide and seek with these stunning animals. They would come up, exhale huge spouts of water into the air and descend, other times they would come up and show off their flukes. ‘Snap’ ‘snap’ ‘snap,’ we took pictures of as many moments as we could. Then unexpectedly the most amazing event occurred. The whales came up again and this time they were surprisingly close, showing off even more of their splendid form to their admirers on the boat just a few meters away. I was standing, camera ready, when all of a sudden the water broke before us and catapulting into the air was one of the whales, his full body bare and glimmering against the light of day, his dorsal side facing us. I was able to make out all his features as time halted for that moment allowing us to take in every detail. The whale was majestically massive in size, shimmering dark grey, the ridges of bumps along the top of his head leading the way, his pectoral fins accented with white were sprucely set at his sides. The foaming water harmoniously enveloped his body as he made his elegant leap into the air. I believe that I must have inhaled so deeply that my breath was lost within me for quite some time before it found its way out. By the time I exhaled their humps were gleaming in the sun as they swam out into the open sea. Feeling a great amount of affirmation on life I said my goodbyes and gave a gracious thank you to the day. A pod of dolphins showed up leaping in and out of the air as to put a finishing touch on what had been one of the most remarkable experiences I have ever encountered.

A quick note on Ocean Conservation – The area of Panama I was in, where these whales were spotted, is almost pristine. There is a protected area nearby and little commercial traffic. Point being that the importance of keeping areas protected is evident in the fact that if there would be noise pollution and other unnecessary activity going on these whales would have never passed through this area. For us and for our future generations we individually need to take responsibility into our own hands so that these animals (as well as other animals) may continue to grace us with their presence for centuries to come.

Melissa Pelaez
Master of Professional Science: Aquaculture
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Webinar of the Week: Potential Sustainability and Economic Viability of Integrated Multi-Trophic Aquaculture

This week’s webinar is presented by Master of Professional Science Student Melissa Pelaez. Melissa discusses the potential sustainability of an ecosystem based approach to aquaculture – integrated multi-trophic aquaculture (IMTA), in her Conservation Biology class taught by Dr. Neil Hammerschlag.

Integrated Multi-trophic Aquaculture is an ecosystem production approach to aquaculture. It is achieved by setting up an aquaculture facility based on organisms from different trophic levels. The species are arranged in a manner where the organic and inorganic wastes of the higher trophic level species, for example, fish, can be further broken down by species lower on the trophic level, for example, mussels. Furthermore, plant species lower on the trophic level, such as seaweed, breaks down the inorganic wastes. This practice increases efficiency by using wastes productively as nutrients for other aquaculture species and leads to environmental sustainability through the bio-filtration of the water.

“Aquaculture already provides almost 50% of our seafood, this percentage is continually growing, it is safe to say Aquaculture is not going anywhere,” says Pelaez. “We can’t wait until it’s too late to start doing aquaculture sustainably. There needs to be a legislative framework put in place sooner rather than later to allow large scale experimental and commercially responsible aquaculture such as IMTA.”

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