Independent Student Research Feature: Sam Barrett


What question(s) does your research address?
My research examined the temporal dynamics of fish assemblage on artificial reefs. Two structures were placed right next to the reef crest, and two were placed further inshore on the sand flat. The aim of this research is to add more understanding on the proper placement of artificial reefs as an extension to a natural reef ecosystem and how this can maximize long-term stability to reef fish populations by providing additional habitat to juvenile fish.

Was it difficult to devise a research question?
At first I really wanted to study Tarpon feeding behavior, because I love large predatory fish (who doesn’t?) But then a thought came to me while reading recent literature on the increased severity of coral degradation from climate change. I thought: how could we somehow strengthen a coral reef’s structural complexity to ensure reef fish still have a healthy habitat? I believe once we acquire enough data, scientists could aid in the conservation of reef fish populations with eco engineered solutions, such as the artificial reef structure I designed.

Was it difficult to devise the methods for your research question?
Devising my methods was not difficult, but designing, building and deploying my four artificial reef structures presented many challenges. I wanted to create a large structure that implemented various physical components known to attract fish. But these structures also had to be light and easy to transport to the study sites. I had to revisit the drawing board a few times during the preliminary phase until I came up with a favorable design. A lot of time was then spent finding the right materials and building my artificial reef structures from scratch. The hardest day of research was when my research partner and I had to deploy the structures. We had to compensate our buoyancy while SCUBA diving with the materials and swim really hard against a strong ocean current. The deployment process was exhausting and took more than two hours, but it was extremely satisfying once we were done.

IMG_3152Describe a typical day of data collection for your research project. Data collection for my research was very straight forward; we identified the fishes utilizing the artificial reef structure area, counted the abundance of different species and measured their size with T-bars. A typical sampling period would take us about an hour in order to survey all four structures. Structures number 1 and 2 were positioned right next to the reef crest while structures number 3 and 4 were positioned 30 meters inshore on the sand flat. My research partner and I would SCUBA dive down to about 30 feet and surveyed the structures along the reef crest first; these structures had 100 meters of separation (the length of a football field) so a good chunk of time was spent swimming between them. We then swam 30 meters inshore to survey the other two adjacent structures on the sand flat.

What major difficulties did you have to overcome to complete your project?
Once my structures were placed at their assigned sites, they were at the mercy of the ocean. Water turbidity partially damaged my structures in the shallower sand flat, so I brought the materials needed to repair them on every dive. Overall the structural integrity of my design was good, like everything, they just need to be properly maintained.

IMG_3128What was the most fun part of your research project?
Getting in the water every week and diving in a beautiful coral reef ecosystem, work can’t get any better than that. Every research dive was a new experience; the most satisfaction I got was from observing the different fish that made my artificial reefs their home. It was amazing to be able to build a habitat from nothing and then watch an assemblage of fish converge together to create their own community. A friendly Soapfish (Rypticus saponaceus) made one of my reef crest structures his daytime napping spot, I caught him catching a quick snooze every sampling period.

Describe the general findings of your research project.
I found that that the abundance of fish assemblage on my sand flat structures was a lot higher compared to the reef crest. But there was greater biodiversity on the reef crest structures. This makes sense because the coral reef provides a larger area of habitat to many more species of fish compared to the sand flat, so structures placed right next to the reef crest will be the most influenced. The most fascinating finding was the large population of French grunt (Haemulon flavolineatum) juveniles that assembled to the structures on the sand flat. There is evidence that these juveniles were actively recruiting to these structures from the size data I compiled. I also observed an increase in average growth and fish assemblage over time with these juveniles. I believe the sand flat creates a nice buffer from predators, and actively increasing habitat in this area could help future reef fish populations.

Has the process of conducting an independent research project made you a better scientist?
Yes, without a doubt. As a student I had to have good time management skills, making time for my research as well as my other studies for classes at the research station. Going through the process of writing a proposal, conducting the research, putting together the research paper and giving a presentation has taught me a lot about the work involved with scientific research and has improved my attention to detail overall as a future marine biologist/conservationist.

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