Thursday, January 28, 2021

NECWA Intern Austyn Morin

Hello! My name is Austyn Morin. I am currently a senior at Stonehill College, majoring in Environmental Studies and minoring in Spanish and German. I have always been interested in the outdoors, spending lots of my free time hiking and fishing in Vermont. This has allowed me to gain a deep appreciation for the local wildlife. Those experiences have inspired me to pursue a career in wildlife biology and conservation.

Austyn (on left) and David (right)
with rescued live sea turtle.

So, naturally, I wanted to do something that would allow me to work with the wildlife of Massachusetts.  I first heard of NECWA through Stonehill College and other students that had interned here. The first activities I participated in had to do with NECWA’s Ocean Sunfish Project, which involved responding to stranded Ocean Sunfish reports and returning them to the water if they were still alive. On one chilly November morning in East Sandwich, I had the opportunity to help return an Ocean Sunfish to the water. On other occasions, I have walked beaches looking for stranded Ocean Sunfish, tagging, taking data, and performing necropsies on the carcasses.

Austyn assisting a live Ocean Sunfish
I also had the opportunity to walk beaches looking for other type of stranded marine wildlife on Cape Cod and even managed to find a few live cold-stunned sea turtles. This was a very gratifying experience as I had never seen a sea turtle before outside of the New England Aquarium. Overall, I learned a lot about the local weather patterns and how the Cape's geography affects these animals and causes the strandings every year.

Austyn taking data on a Torpedo Ray

More recently, I have participated in NECWA’s new research project for the Western Atlantic Torpedo. This project is focused on the only electric ray that is native to our New England waters. I was involved with on-site necropsies as well as data analysis back in the lab. Using ArcGIS Pro, I was able to create  maps that show the location of the 63 torpedo ray carcasses NECWA was able to document this stranding season. The most interesting map is the one that shows the mass stranding of torpedo rays that occurred in late December on Long Point Beach in Provincetown. In this location, NECWA was able to document 41 torpedo ray carcasses that stranded along this 1.3 mile stretch of beach that borders Provincetown Harbor. 

Austyn documenting a Torpedo Ray

In the future, I hope to pursue a career in wildlife biology and conservation while implementing my passion for GIS. To learn more about Stonehill's Environmental program, click here.

By Austyn Morin, Senior at Stonehill College

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

NECWA Intern Highlight - Coleman Earner

Coleman with dead Common Dolphin at Linnell Landin, Brewster, MA.

Hello! My name is Coleman Earner and I am in my Junior year at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy (MMA). I am currently studying Marine Science, Safety, and Environmental Protection (MSSEP) with a minor in Marine Biology. From a young age, I was fascinated by the ocean ecosystem and all of its moving parts. Since then, I’ve known for certain that I wanted to pursue the field of Marine Biology. During my time at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, I became especially interested in the phenomenon of stranded marine life. Participating in marine wildlife rescues and field research are activities that I’ve wanted to become involved in for a long time. I first heard about NECWA through one of Mass Maritime’s Career fairs as well as recommendations from various fellow students, which drove me to become more involved with their program through a MMA Winter Co-op Program. 


Dead Ocean Sunfish stranded on
Great Island, Wellfleet, MA.


My first day of fieldwork at NECWA consisted of walking Great Island in Wellfleet, MA in search of a stranded Ocean Sunfish carcass that was reported to NECWA the day before. The primary goal of this expedition was to report and record any washed-up marine life as well as learn the basics of proper searching and data collection. Along with another intern from MMA, Jack Gerrior, we successfully located the fresh Ocean Sunfish carcass and began collecting the requisite photographs and data. This experience was extremely invigorating and piqued my interest in further field research. I was fortunate enough to be able to work-up a fresh Ocean Sunfish carcass, as this instance would be the last new Ocean Sunfish stranding of the 2020/2021 stranding season.


Live Loggerhead Sea Turtle rescued by Coleman Earner
and Jack Gerrior at Beach Point, Truro, MA.


Along with various necropsies of Torpedo Rays and Ocean Sunfish, I was lucky to be involved with a number of rescues such as various seabirds and the rescue of a live Loggerhead Sea Turtle. As I was walking from Top Mast Resort south to Cold Storage Beach, I saw this turtle in the surf being pulled back out to sea. I had to wade into the surf to rescue this cold-stunned turtle and contacted Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary in Wellfleet for a pick-up. Being part of rescue efforts directly was an incredible experience and I am very thankful that I was able to make a difference. 


Coleman photographing a dead torpedo ray on
Point of Rocks Beach, Brewster, MA.


During my time with NECWA, I also appreciated the direct and in-depth instruction provided by my supervisor, Krill Carson regarding the "how-tos" with beach rescues and necropsies. I picked-up a variety of techniques quickly such as how best to survey beaches for stranded animals and proper techniques used for data collection and measurements. My internship experience at NECWA has given me insights into the various elements of marine biology and fieldwork, including necropsies, photo-ID and video documentation. I also learned how to thoroughly document strandings through GPS positions, body measurements and weights. Back in the lab, I participated in tracking weather conditions and being involved in data input and analysis. Rescuing marine animals in need and analyzing stranded marine life data has piqued my interest in marine biology fieldwork even further. 


Live Loggerhead rescued from Beach Point, Truro, MA

My hopes for the future would be to find a career in the field of Marine Ecology, Seabird Protection, or general Coastal Conservation efforts. If you would like to learn more about Mass Maritime’s MSSEP Program, click HERE

Article by Coleman Earner, Junior at Mass Maritime Academy

Saturday, January 23, 2021

A Peculiar Looking Fish by Austyn Morin

Stranded dead Gray Triggerfish on Great Island, Wellfleet
 on 11/21/2020 by Holly Kuhn

The Gray Triggerfish (Balistes capriscus), also known as a Leatherjacket or Taly, belongs to the Balistidae or the triggerfish family, containing about 40 species altogether. Their most identifiable feature is their front spiny dorsal fin, which gives the Gray Triggerfish its name because they use their front dorsal fin as a defense mechanism against predators. When threatened, the Gray Triggerfish will move into a rocky crevice and erect their front dorsal fin, locking them into place. The Gray Triggerfish has been known to become stranded on Cape Cod's beaches, so it is important to note other important physical features. Mainly since the physical characteristics of the Gray Triggerfish can change depending on age and sex. That way, if one is identified, you can take photos of it and take note of its location. In general they have large plate-like scales at the front of their body, but they become smoother and smaller towards the back of the fish. Triggerfish are compressed laterally, so they look somewhat like an oblong plate. The eyes of the Triggerfish are also set farther away from their mouth. They have two separate dorsal fins a spiny one in the front for defense and another one behind it. There is also an anal fin which is on the opposite side of the second dorsal fin. They also have a caudal or tail fin that can have elongated lobes in larger adults.

Dead stranded Gray Triggerfish on Cold Storage Beach, Truro, MA. 
Photo by Eric Joransen

Adults tend to be olive-gray and can have blue spots and lines on their upper body and dorsal fins and white spots near their lower body and fins.  In comparison, juveniles are more yellowish and have small violet dots. Gray Triggerfish call the waters of the East Atlantic from Nova Scotia all the way down to Argentina home. Triggerfish prefer areas with hard bottoms or reefs, and they live in bays or lagoons in depths up to 55 meters. Gray Triggerfish can weigh as much as 13 pounds. They can reach upto 28 inches in length and normally live around 11-15 years.

Spawning season for Gray triggerfish occurs between the months of April to August, and during this time, Triggerfish exhibit an exciting ability in their toolset. They change colors. Males become a more charcoal grey color while females become a more contrasting black and white. It is essential to keep in mind if you find a fish on the beach that looks like a Gray Triggerfish, but the colors seem off. After the fish have mated, it typically takes about 44-55 hours for the eggs to hatch. Once they hatch, unlike their adult counterparts who prefer to hang out near the water's bottom, juveniles live at a more shallow depth. These young Triggerfish are very closely connected with Sargassum, which is a type of Algae. In fact, Sargassum is so important to young Gray Triggerfish that juveniles' survival rates are directly correlated to the abundance of the Sargassum. So, future efforts to maintain the populations could be connected to monitoring the quantity of Sargassum.

Gray Triggerfish in open water
Photo posted by

An adult Gray Triggerfishes' favorite foods are Benthic invertebrates like mollusks, crabs, shrimp, sea urchins, and lobsters. In contrast, the juveniles tend to prefer hydroids, which are related to jellyfish, barnacles, and polychaetes, also known as bristle worms. Because of their preferred diet of shelled creatures Gray Triggerfish have very specialized incisor-like teeth to create holes on their shelled prey. Interestingly enough, Gray Triggerfish also show some exciting foraging behaviors while looking for prey. In a study done by Thomas Frazer, Triggerfish would direct a stream of water towards the sand to move the sand and reveal any hiding prey like sand dollars. They will then undulate their anal and dorsal fins to hover above the water to get their prey. As previously stated, Gray Triggerfish change their colors more dramatically during the spawning season. Still, they can also slightly change their color to better blend in with their surroundings. There is more interesting behaviour exhibited by Gray Triggerfish during extreme weather patterns. A recent study found that many fish species living close to the bottom of the ocean floor are actually affected by tropical storms. Researchers noted a change of movement behaviour of Gray Triggerfish during extreme weather conditions. Mainly that there was increased movement oftentimes to deeper water, just before or during the storms.

Live Sand Dollar, Long Point Beach, MA
Photo by Katarina Bingham-Maas

Due to their abundance and comprehensive range, they are a favorite for anglers both commercially and for recreation. There are two main stocks in the Atlantic: in the Gulf of Mexico and the South Atlantic. However, due to their popularity in 2018, the stock in the Gulf of Mexico was overfished. Today it is no longer currently considered to be overfished, and the population is rebuilding to target levels. Despite their popularity, there is no need for alarm because the fishing gear used for Gray Triggerfish has been shown to have a little environmental impact. As well the World Conservation Union does not consider the Gray Triggerfish to be threatened or endangered. There are regulations in place by the US government to make sure Gray Triggerfish populations remain sustainable, and because of this, Gray Triggerfish are an excellent choice for seafood. As an alternative for those who are looking for a more sustainable meat source. Or if you're looking for something new to try. Gray Triggerfish are also notorious among anglers for being bait stealers, especially those fishing for Red Snapper and Grouper.

Gray Triggerfish strandings are a visible event that occurs on Cape Cod. So, by starting the data collection process on where they are stranding. We can begin to better understand the role these peculiar fish play in our waters. For more information about Gray Triggerfish check out these links and Articles below.

This blog post by Austyn Morin, Senior at Stonehill College

Links to learn more about the Gray Triggerfish:

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

NECWA Intern David Madden

Hello! I am an undergraduate student at Bridgewater State University, and am pursuing a Biology major, as well as a Music minor. I discovered NECWA through my University and have been working as a field research intern starting in November. With NECWA, I have had the opportunity of working with various types of marine wildlife that strand along the shores of Cape Cod. On some occasions, I have walked beaches looking to locate and rescue stranded cold stunned sea turtles in collaboration with Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary in Wellfleet, MA. At other times, my walks have focused on finding and necropsying Western Atlantic torpedo rays and ocean sunfish. I have also been involved in a number of sea bird rescues that also occur this time of the year.

David Madden at Paine's Creek, Brewster, MA

A new project that NECWA initiated this stranding season was focused on the Western Atlantic Torpedo, an electric ray found in the waters off of the Cape. Each fall and early winter, torpedo rays, have been found to strand primarily along the northern shores of Cape Cod. This year, NECWA was able to document 41 torpedo ray carcasses washed up along a 1.3 mile stretch of beach on Long Point, Provincetown. The cause of this mass stranding is unknown and currently under investigation.

David on Great Island, 1/16/21 looking for wildlife in need.

NECWA has given me a unique opportunity to experience wildlife that many New England natives may never see, and some may not even known about. Living off Cape makes it difficult to access many of these beaches where strandings occur, but it is important to make the effort to drive down to these areas. I find ocean sunfish to be absolutely fascinating animals. Their strange biology and morphology is incredible to experience up close. Being able to perform necropsies, animal autopsies, and learn first hand about the inner workings of these animals is also a joy.

David documenting a torpedo ray on Long Point, Provincetown.

I adore marine wildlife and have always felt very lucky to live in a place with such a diverse wildlife and a complex ecology. I have spent much of my time on the Cape for recreational purposes with friends and family. I find it a privilege to now to have a purpose for my actions by assisting with marine wildlife rescues and research with NECWA. Thanks to NECWA I have had the opportunity to study these animals up close and to develop skills useful for my career goals in the field of marine science. After graduation I would like to have a career that is focused on conservation biology and the study of marine life in the waters of New England.

David recording data on a torpedo ray

For anyone interested in learning more about Bridgewater State Universities Biology Program, click HERE. To learn more about NECWA's internship program, click HERE.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

NECWA Intern Highlight - Jack Gerrior

 Highlight of one of NECWA'a Fall/Winter Interns, Jack Gerrior.

Jack Gerrior helping to clean the fish ladder at Wareham Street, Middleboro
Jack rescuing a frog trapped in one of the fish ladders at the Wareham Street ladder.

Hello there! I am a second class (2/C) cadet at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy in the Marine Science, Safety, and Environmental Protection Program (MSSEP)and have been additionally pursuing a minor in Marine Biology. With the support of marine ecologist Professor William Hubbard, I have been able to work at the on-campus Aquaculture and Marine Sciences Laboratory where ongoing studies regarding marine species local to Cape Cod (i.e. Tautog, American Lobster, Black Sea Bass, and Deep Sea Scallops) are being conducted with other student-led research projects.

Jack necropsying a torpedo ray carcass in Provincetown, MA

I was first introduced to NECWA at a talk given by Krill at the Academy regarding her Ocean Sunfish Project, where she discussed the data she had been taking on Ocean Sunfish (Mola mola) that had stranded each winter in Cape Cod Bay. Since the winter of 2019, I have volunteered to assist with the Mola Project by helping with data collection, rescues of live animals and necropsies, in addition to walking local beaches for cold-stunned Sea Turtles.

Jack finding a dead torpedo ray at Linnell Landing

Most recently, I have been a part of NECWAs most recent efforts to study Western Atlantic Torpedo Rays, which also strand in the winter in Massachusetts due to reasons that are yet to be fully understood. Working with Krill's nonprofit as part of a Coop this winter has brought me closer to working with these strange and less-understood marine animals than I could ever thought possible and I am extremely grateful to have had this opportunity.

In the future following graduation, I hope to pursue a career with the NOAA Corps or with NOAA Fisheries and aim to help with the continued development of the torpedo ray monitoring program.

Western Atlantic Torpedo Ray necropsy In Provincetown near Shore Rd.

To learn more about Massachusetts Maritime Academy, click HERE.