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.
Master of Professional Science: Aquaculture
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