Tag Archives: marine debris

Lionfish Guts

May 27, 2019

Today, we cleaned up marine debris on the island. Part of the experiment was looking at the amount and composition of trash in different areas of the island, so three brave souls (Kaela, Amy, and Kelsey) volunteered to cover the Mangroves of Death.

After going through the collected marine debris, Scott brought out some coconuts, and we got to try fresh coconut water and coconut meat.

In the afternoon, we dissected the lionfish that Scott and Herbie speared a couple days ago. This involved estimating sex and reproductive maturity of the fish and then identifying its different organs. When Liz and I opened the stomach of our lionfish, we found a whole undigested fish in it! We identified it as a juvenile slippery dick.

Day 13: Contrasts

My emotions were a rollercoaster today. I woke up to a dreary, rainy sky. The weather suited our morning activity: a project about marine debris. You can imagine how that went. We decided to study the differences in composition and amounts of marine trash that we’d find on the windward and leeward sides of our island, Middle Caye.

I’ve seen few things as saddening as a shoreline of a place even as relatively pristine as Glovers Reef covered in human detritus. This area is in the center of a Marine Protected area, is designated as a world heritage site, and is regularly cleaned by the crew who lives here.

And yet the fossilized corals were still littered with old shoes, plastic bottles, rope, nets… we only collected trash for 15 minutes at the windward side of the island, the coral fossil graveyard, but already filled two huge garbage bags. We barely made a dent in the amount of trash.

We moved to the leeward side of the island, the mangrove forest. This section of the island fared no better. Here, we found smaller fragments of trash, but more individual pieces of trash. We also found a larger variety of types of trash on the leeward side than the windward side. This was probably because pieces of debris can escape the windward side, but then wind up getting trapped on the leeward side.

As we collected trash, the only thought in my mind was that everything I’ve ever lost – a plastic bottle here, a candy wrapper there – is probably in the ocean now. Large chunks of debris slam against already fragile coral ecosystems. Sharks and sea turtles accidentally ingest plastic, thinking that it’s food. In a particularly poignant example of the consequences of human irresponsibility, we spotted a huge nurse shark at a patch reef later this afternoon.

It had a plastic bottle tied around its fin with a fishing line. Here’s a photo.


Instead of using plastic or paper, use reusable utensils. Don’t use plastic straws – your drink tastes the same whether it reaches you via straw or not. Make sure that your trash actually ends up in the trash can. Reduce waste, recycle your stuff. It’s not that hard and only requires small adjustments to make a world of difference for our marine ecosystems. I, for one, know I can do better.

We as a species must do better. If we don’t, it’s unlikely that many marine ecosystems, especially coral reefs, will last another 50 years. I don’t want to have to tell my grandchildren about the fabled coral reefs because they’ll never get to see them for themselves.

My mood in the afternoon was a stark contrast to my mood in the morning. We went out snorkeling with the boat for one last time and hit three different areas near our island.

Hopping into this water never gets old. We visited an area known as The Aquarium, which is known for having many beautiful fish. It sure lived up to its name; I felt like I was swimming in one of the exhibits at my local aquarium.

I spent some time peeking in crevices for urchins, and found many clusters of small long-spined sea urchins hidden between the rocks. They really do look like the hedgehogs of the sea! I also found some tiny juveniles on the undersides of reef rock that I turned over – one baby slate pencil urchin and one long-spined urchin. I find it fun that while adult long-spined urchins are purely dark purple to black, the juveniles are banded white and black.

Juvenile long-spined sea urchin.

We also swam at a deeper patch reef.

Beautiful elkhorn coral specimen (scientific name Acropora palmata) that I found at the deeper patch reef.

The best part of today, and maybe part of the whole trip so far, was swimming at the reef crest. Usually, this area is too turbulent and murky for swimming, but we got lucky. The water was so still and clear. I floated over the shallows, marveling over the blueness and the richness of life. I kind of feel like this place should be dubbed the aquarium because everywhere I looked, fish swam near enough to touch. They weren’t timid either! Groupers hid in rock holes and blue tangs darted between anemones.

This picture is here just because I think it’s so cool – this is a mollusk commonly known as flamingo’s tongue! I found it at the reef crest.

This place was teeming with long-spined sea urchins, too. They were everywhere in between coral cracks. These guys are grazers, so I bet they were having a great time munching away at the algae encrusting exposed coral rock.

Also, I can’t believe that tomorrow is our last full day! NooOOOooooO I don’t wanna go back to Houston 🙁

One Squishy, Two Pieces of Banana Bread, and Lots of Fish

DAY 6 — I think I’m starting to get used to waking up early and walking outside to feel the ocean breeze. This morning it was less of a breeze and more of a strong wind. It’s hard to belize that tomorrow is our last full day on the island.

This morning we had more delicious homemade bread and mixed fruit for breakfast. By 8:15 we were headed to the snorkel shack. Today we went to the northern back reef to collect a sampling of the diverse organisms in the reef (and seagrass) habitat. We walked through some adorable baby mangroves and trudged through some squishy seagrass beds to get to the patch reefs.

I saw a spotted eel (Gymnothorax moringa), the Caribbean giant anemone (Condylactis gigantea), Halimeda chips, and a couple brittle stars. I also saw a LOT of fish, including the juvenile Gray Angelfish (Pomacanthus arcuatus), the intermediate stage French Angelfish (Pomacanthus paru), the Bluehead (Thalassoma bifasciatum), the Rock Beauty (Holacanthus tricolor), and the French Grunt (Haemulon favolineatum).


We swam our loot back to Middle Caye and sorted everything in the wet lab troughs. For good reason, we weren’t allowed to collect any sponges, so my taxonomic group was lacking. I did still have the dead sponge from yesterday, which I identified as a Yellow Tube Sponge (Aplysina fistularis).


Some cool organisms collected were the Cocoa Damselfish (Stegastes variabilis), the Caribbean Giant Anemone (Condylactis gigantea), a fire worm (Heimodic carcunculata), and a Manta Shrimp (Pseudosquilla cilicate).

We managed to collect a tiny baby octopus (named Squishy) who became a fast favorite among the TFBs and highlight of the day. Squishy was hiding in a Diadema antillarum inked when the Cocoa damselfish lunged towards her (or him), which was extra cute. We think Squishy was an Octopus briareus.


After lunch Ellie, Deepu, and Anna gave their presentations on herbivorous fish, piscivorous fish, and invasive species, respectively. It was the perfect day for these lectures, as I had just seen a bunch of fish in the patch reef area.

After lectures we returned our collected friends to the ocean from whence they came and began analyzing our marine debris data from yesterday. We produced a poster (which got rave reviews) showing that plastic was both the most abundant type of marine debris by number of pieces and by weight.

Tomorrow, whether the weather be fair or whether the weather be not, we’ll weather the weather, whatever the weather, whether we like it or not. Meaning: we are going out to enjoy ourselves around various parts of the atoll, even if it stays windy.

Annelids and molluscs are cool, marine debris is not 

DAY 5 — Another full day of field biology! Starting with fried jack and fresh fruit for breakfast plus a leisurely coffee with Tian-Tian and Sarah. Our departure was postponed because of the windy conditions, so we listened to Damien talk about annelids and mollusks. 

Instead of heading out on the boat for an explanation of reef zonation, we suited up and walked through the “Mangroves of Death” to the back reef. We planned to assess the presence of Christmas tree worms (Spirobranchus gigantea), trying to answer the question: do Christmas tree worms show a host preference for stony coral? We hypothesized that more Christmas tree worms would be found on brain corals and that more Christmas tree worms would be found on larger corals.

Collecting data was difficult on the shallow reefs; constantly being pushed around by the waves and crashing into rocks was an inconvenience. Adolfo found a Caribbean spiny lobster shell from a recently molted lobster, which was pretty cool. 

For a sponge update: I didn’t identify any new sponges among the patch reefs today. BUT Adolfo found a big, old dead coral specimen. See below. 


I’m pretty sure it’s a yellow tube sponge (Aplysina fistularis). 

I’m hoping that when we eventually get out to the reef crest and fore reef I’ll see some more new species of sponge. I’m still hoping for a barrel sponge (like the Giant Barrel Sponge, Xestospongia muta) or the Pink Vase Sponge (Niphates digitalis). 

After a delectable lunch, Isaac gave a lecture on marine debris. A fun fact: microplastics are thought to account for 90% of marine debris. Our next activity fit with the theme. We collected trash and marine debris from various locations around Middle Caye (11 people for 30 minutes, so 330 people-minutes). There was SO MUCH TRASH, especially plastics. Kind of a bummer.

We arrived back at the wet lab with our trash bags stuffed with plastic forks, bottles, toothbrushes, sandals, combs, Styrofoam pieces and much more. Waiting for us were several freshly collected and cut coconuts. Man, I love coconut. 

After a brief stint in the hammock, we sorted, counted, and weighed all of the debris. 2,460 pieces, or 18.46 kg, of plastic. 

Before dinner we played some beach volleyball. Look out for an EBIO 319 intramural team, coming SY 2018. 

Later in the evening, Scott and Adrienne set up lights in the water at the end of the dock. It was kind of eerie being out on the dock in the darkness, looking out over the huge ocean. The water was choppy because of the strong wind, but we were able to observe a bunch of fish and a sting ray. Also, we saw the bright, reflecting eyes of a crocodile lounging behind a log. 

Until tomorrow!

Worms and Trash (Day 5)

Today we attempted to recreate the experiment that a former TFB performed on host preference in Christmas tree worms. Christmas tree worms are colorful little annelids that live on the surface of corals. In that way, this was easier than the urchin experiment because they were much easier to see.  I saw another Sailor’s eye algae today during the experiment. That was the only time we spent on the reef today, so I didn’t have time to look for other algae species much.

Two Christmas Tree Worms on top of a brain coral.


Besides algae, I also got to see the molt of a Caribbean Spiny Lobster today and a Donkey Dung sea cucumber on the back reef. These are funny because they look like a donkey’s dung (or at least what I assume the dung of a donkey might look like). Tonight when we shone a dive light into the water (it was too rough for us to do a night snorkel), we saw a crocodile and a stingray, too.

A Donkey Dung sea cucumber.

For the last part of today, we collected, sorted, and weighed marine debris. It was shocking, and depressing, to me how much debris there was on Middle Caye because we are so so remote. After 30 minutes of collecting, we didn’t even make a dent in the amount of litter there was within the mangroves, let alone the amount there is in the world, Belize, or even just the amount on Middle Caye.

A large piece of marine debris that was found during our Christmas Tree Worm experiment.

We couldn’t do the night snorkel or go out to the reef crest today, so fingers remain crossed.

I’m Trash at Volleyball

This morning we were hoping to take the boat out and snorkel on the atoll’s forereef, but the sea was a bit too rough for that, so we went to a small patch reef on the other side of Middle Caye. The water was shallow enough for us to leave our fins on shore and walk in the water with our masks on. We looked to see if Christmas Tree worms on the reef preferred to burrow into certain corals. After lunch, we analyzed the data and found inconclusive results.

On the reef I spotted, with Jordan’s help, one Condylactis gigantea, a Giant Caribbean Anemone, burrowed in a rock. I did not see any more of my marine taxa in our brief jaunt in the water today.

After our worm examination, I gave the class my lecture on marine debris, which doesn’t get any less sad the more I look at it. After the lecture, we followed up with a cleanup of the beaches and mangroves of the island. We only spent thirty minutes as a group cleaning, but we collected over 2000 pieces of plastic and almost 40 kilograms of trash. Nobody litters on this island, so all of this trash washed up here from ocean currents, which is crazy to think of considering we only scratched the surface of the island’s trash today.

After our trash experiment, we got to have free time for the rest of the day. We went out to the dock at night, where we spotted an American Crocodile (Crocodylus acutus) in the water near the shore. Although there was no soccer today, we did play beach volleyball, which was fun despite how bad I was at it. I have thoroughly enjoyed the free time that we’ve gotten over the past two days. It is really nice to enjoy all this island has to offer outside of biology and to spend time relaxing in paradise.

Beach cleanup and backreef

Beach cleanup was on this morning’s agenda, and, being Rice students, we also weighed and separated all the types of marine debris and analyzed the results. The amount of garbage on the shore was astounding; we filled 6 garbage bags in an hour, and this is on a beach that is in a protected area and cleaned weekly. We only made a dent in the amount of debris accumulated on the island’s shores. I guess the take-home message to anyone reading this would be to limit your use of plastics as much as possible, stop using styrofoam, and be very careful about where your waste ends up (even properly disposed of trash often ends up in the ocean).

We went out to the backreef again today to document some coral colonies. I saw some more split crown feather dusters, spaghetti worms, a christmas tree worm, a teeny tiny star horseshoe worm, and finally a free-moving worm (as opposed to the others, which are tube dwelling). The fireworm is a marine worm that belongs to the same class as the feather dusters and fan worms but looks more like a caterpillar. It is red with white tufts, and, true to its name, will sting you if you touch it.


Sophia Streeter


Talking Trash

Today was really cool because we brought a clear conservation viewpoint into our projects. In the morning, we created a project about marine debris. We had a dual purpose in this: beach clean-up and exploring the composition of marine debris on the windward side of the island.

In total, we picked up 41.22 kg of debris in an hour, and we barely scratched the surface of the trash that was washed up on the shore. By mass, almost 50% of the trash was plastics, but styrofoam also made up a large proportion of the debris picked up. Overall, the sheer amount marine debris found is quite disturbing, especially knowing that much of it could come from landfills.

After lunch, we braved the mosquito mangroves to explore another part of the back reef. Here, each group of two used quadrats to measure a single coral colony that had also been measured the year before. Hopefully we will be able to use these measurements to determine whether or not the colonies have been growing over the past year.

Middle Caye
Middle Caye

In terms of piscivorous fish, I saw a few identifiable species today. Most of these were seen during our night snorkel, which was super fun! Some species included squirrelfish, a tarpon, a porgy, and an invasive lionfish (whose venomous spines I almost swam right into). Overall, the night swim was probably my favorite snorkeling activity so far!

Day 13: Marine debris and mangroves

Sunrise on Middle Caye

The project of the morning consisted of quantifying the marine debris that was washed up on the windward side of Middle Caye. At four sites we measured the amount of trash that the 14 of us could collect in 15 minutes. By weight, 50% of the debris that we gathered was plastic and another 21% was Styrofoam. 14% was rope and 15% was glass, rubber, or other materials. Overall we collected 41.22 kg of debris in one hour, which is especially significant because the shore gets cleaned every week. The amount of debris that we collected on a small portion of this small island far away from the shore was staggering.

In the afternoon we ventured through a stand of mangroves to the leeward side of the island to the back reef. We were there to collect data on coral colonies that the EBIO 319 students measured last year, but we were also able to explore the area. The large quantity of sand on the back reef made it a good place to find green algae. Most of the Caulerpa that I saw were either Caulerpa cupressoides (cactus tree algae) or C. urvilleana. The Caulerpa were often found near Penicillus capitatus and Udotea flabellum. I also saw a few examples of Dictyosphaeria cavernosa (green bubble algae) on corals and in sea grass.

While we were collecting debris I noticed a fair amount of filamentous algae on the rocks along the shore. I’m not sure whether they were from the Cladophoraceae or Derbesiaceae family. Some of them might have been Rhizoclonium riparium.

I forgot to mention yesterday that I found Caulerpa racemosa (green grape algae) on the windward back reef that we visited. The algae were in very shallow water right behind the reef crest. I also have seen examples of Acetabularia calyculus (mermaid’s wine glass) in the shallow water off of the dock.

Caulerpa racemosa on the back reef at Middle Caye
Caulerpa racemosa (green grape algae), turf algae, Halimeda, and brown algae on the back reef at Middle Caye
Acetabularia calyculus (mermaid’s wine glass)

The Professor Who Cried Mosquito

Ocean view of “mangroves of death.”

It sure is one thing to learn about conservation, but seeing it in action is a whole other story. And this morning’s experiment was really all about doing conservation. After learning about marine debris, we spent the morning on a task that was part data collection and part beach cleanup. In just an hour, we picked up an incredible 90 pounds of trash. But the real kicker is that the same beach is cleaned every week, so everything we collected today had accumulated in just one week. Talk about mass consumerism.


In the afternoon, we tackled the much-awaited “mangroves of death.” Prepared by horror stories of mosquito clouds in years past, we were ready to sprint through the mangroves, snorkel and all. But our mangrove run turned into a leisurely stroll, as we encountered a total of zero bugs. A classic case of the professor that cried mosquito. 


After our safe passage, we said a tearful goodbye to our quadrats with one last coral experiment. We conducted our study on the back reef just beyond the island’s shoreline, where I saw much fewer herbivorous fish than on the patch reefs inside the atoll. The corals in this area seemed much more spread out and covered less area, which might explain the smaller number of fish.


To wrap up, we did our first night snorkel today. The reef is a whole other world at night; instead of seeing brightly colored parrotfish and small damselfish darting among the corals, I found a whole slew of other creatures. Some notable sightings included several huge spiny lobsters, a Nassau grouper, a yellow stingray, and several Caribbean reef squid. However, I did also find what looked like a blue tang surgeonfish (Acanthurus coeruleus); it had the characteristic spine on its caudal fin, but also had thick, vertical white stripes over its blue coloring.


To summarize, this is what I learned today: the ocean is filled with our trash; don’t use Styrofoam; and the reef is pretty damn cool in the dark.