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ES Student Profile
Jordan Levinson '05
I spent this summer interning at Mote Marine Biology Lab in Sarasota , Florida . Mote was formed in 1955 by Eugenie Clark, basically as a one-woman shark research operation. Today, Mote consists of seven research departments—aquaculture, coastal ecology, coral reef research, ecotoxicology, fisheries enhancement, marine mammal and sea turtle research, and shark research—and world famous aquarium and marine mammal/cetacean rehabilitation centers. I worked for Damon Gannon, a post-doctoral biologist, in the Marine Mammal Center . He and a host of other biologists and researchers work with lab manager Randy Wells to further the world’s longest-running dolphin research program.
Though the Sarasota Dolphin Research program focuses mostly on behavioral and biological aspects of inshore bottlenose dolphins (and anthropogenic effects on them), Damon’s project seems more like a fisheries investigation. Damon is investigating the abundance and distribution of dolphin prey species throughout Sarasota Bay . His methods include survey of a variety of habitats by purse-seiner and bioacoustic recordings.
My job involved three days a week on the purse seiner, which is a small-scale commercial fishing boat adapted slightly for the needs of the project. We (usually me and a few other interns) would begin the week by using an Access database query to randomly select sixteen fishing sites from our map of twenty thousand available sites. Using ArcMap and DNR Garmin, we would then create maps of these points and update the boat’s GPS unit.
Fishing was much more physical. The days began at six a.m. and often went until five or six o’clock in the evening. Our team of five (either Damon or staff biologist Elizabeth Berens and four interns) would set out for one of our fishing sites. The boat is a 28-foot skiff equipped with our nearly 200m net and the hydraulics needed to reel it in. Besides this, we carried a host of equipment for environmental surveys and bioacoustic recordings, plus the usual boating gear.
Once we reached a site, we would record atmospheric and water conditions and take a two-minute underwater recording: most of the fish dolphin eat are noise-making, and one of Damon’s other projects involves investigation into the relationship between dolphin’s echolocation and the noise their prey emit. Then we began the seining.
A “set” of the net could take a few hours, depending on how well it went. Two people threw the net off the back of the boat as the driver pulled forward and began a circle about 50m in diameter. The net is weighted on the bottom and floats on the top, so it encompasses the entire water column. Once the circle (the “compass”) was closed, we began to cinch up the bottom of the net using with some help from the hydraulic system. The net weighs about 750lbs dry, so pulling it in totally by hand would have been impossible. Two of us would then ID and measure all of the fish we caught as the others worked to re-fold the net.
We saw a huge species variety, especially variant by habitat. Our results were also dramatically skewed by the presence of red tide, which made some days particularly dirty and smelly. Mostly we caught pinfish, toadfish , mojarra, and scaled sardines, all known dolphin prey species. The mangroves yielded more big game fish such as sheepshead, mullet, and snook, which, at two to three feet long, put up much more of a struggle.
I got used to being filthy and reeking of fish most of the time, as well as jellyfish stings, crabpinches and pinfish or sheepshead puncture wounds. Adding to the extremity of our job was the early prevalence of hurricanes and the day-to-day thunderstorms that often chased us around the bay. My lab days involved GIS and Access database work and literature searches for Damon or Elizabeth ’s upcoming projects. We also did all of the weekly maintenance work on our boats and the other research vessels.
This internship gave me a great insight into the field of marine biology, for better or worse. I learned how difficult it can be to perform research in the face of uncontrollable hardships such as lack of funding, bad weather, and red tide. I also saw the phenomenal opportunities for exploration that are afforded research scientists, especially at a world-renowned facility such as Mote. I gained hugely valuable experience in research methods, GIS/Access, and purse-seining, plus a good deal of knowledge about Sarasota Bay . I got to glimpse the workings of other departments, such as the animal care facilities and the strandings investigations. This position gave me a good deal of direction in terms of grad school and future career choices, plus some great friends and more than a few good stories.