Bermuda Black Grouper | Ocean Vet | S01 E07 | Free Documentary Nature
By Micah Moen
This is Doctor Neil Burnie. He lives in Bermuda, a stunning Atlantic Island six hundred and forty miles east of North Carolina, USA.He’s spent the last thirty years practicing veterinary medicine, but now he’s transferring his veterinary skills to help save, protect, and learn more about the incredible marine life of Bermuda’s Ocean. This is a completely wild shark. Alongside his dedicated Ocean Vet team, are a number of scientists, Yeah, this and probably. marine biologists, Just cut a little nick off the back fin. and specialist master divers, helping to perform a number of unique and dangerous procedures, in a bid to safeguard critically important marine species.Together, the team will be fitting satellite tags to huge tiger sharks, saving precious green turtles, dissecting giant blue marlin, and obtaining unique toxin samples from forty five tonne, migrating, humpback whales. Yay! Woo hoo!My knees are like jell-o. Yes, man! This is Bermuda! Home to Doctor Neil Burnie, the Ocean Vet. The Bermuda black grouper is one of the most famous grouper in the world. They are synonymous with Bermuda’s pristine and crystal clear waters. These fish are vitally important to the ecology of Bermuda’s marine ecosystem and as such have been monitored for several years. Yep. There’s our fish, five eight five two seven. In this special episode, the Ocean Vet team will be working with the Department of Fisheries to monitor and protect Bermuda’s critical black grouper spawning grounds. Good to go. Neil, will also be visiting an old friend who lives at the Bermuda Aquarium. So this is, ‘Darth Vader.’ And testing new and less invasive tagging methods to lower the impact of future tagging studies. We planted the tag in him, opened the door, and watched him swim away without a care in the world. It was a fantastic experience! Over several days at sea, the team will be put through their paces as they set out to ensure the protection of Bermuda’s precious black grouper spawning grounds. I’m on the roof of the Bermuda Aquarium and i’m gearing up for a rather special dive. This is the five hundred and thirty thousand litre North Rock tank. It’s home to sharks, jacks, barracuda, and most importantly to my friend, ‘Darth Vader’, an eighty pound Bermuda black grouper. It’s gonna be a unique opportunity to show you more about this important species and frankly I can’t wait to get in. As an Island veterinarian, Neil, has developed a close relationship with many animals, including other individuals at the Bermuda Aquarium Museum and Zoo. But this massive black grouper has always been one of Neil’s favourites. So this is, ‘Darth Vader.’ He’s very old. He’s very wise. I’ve known him for nearly twenty years. There are thousands of these groupers patrolling the coral reefs around the Bermuda platform. The Bermuda Department of Fisheries has spent the last ten years protecting these patrolling grouper. So, Tammy, just put a tag in there. That’s number two eighty two. Tagged fish send their location to receivers positioned over the groupers breeding sites. I’m just using this, er. This enables the Department of Fisheries to map the exact spawning location, and enforce a precise fishing ban where these fish breed. In spite of strict fishing regulations and seasonal protected areas, it appears that the numbers of these fish are in decline. The Department of Fisheries is desperate to obtain more information on the movement of these fish in order to strengthen the protection, and increase the restricted areas. And that’s what we’re going to do! This year, the Department of Fisheries and the Ocean Vet team are working together to reassess the size of the southwest grouper spawning grounds. The team are now over the protected area and preparing for a rather deep dive. So we’re here at the southwestern grouper grounds, this is one of Bermuda’s protected areas. And i’m here with, Doctor Tammy Trott, senior marine resources officer. So, Tammy, what can we expect on this dive? Well, Neil, i’m expecting that you’ll see lots of groupers down there. The dive is about one hundred and ten, but the groupers will come up off the bottom so you should be able to see them at about eighty feet. Excellent! Um, yeah. So, that’s, that’s a fairly technical dive, we’ve gotta be a little careful, Drew and I are gonna be watching out for each other. But this is gonna be super cool, we’re gonna get you some great footage, so let’s get ready and get in the water. Excellent. Ok. Diver going in! Diver, in the water! As always, Neil is supported by his trusted Ocean Vet team. Choy Aming, is the series marine biologist; Dylan Ward, and Oscar Duess, are assisting with all topside operations; and Andrew Kirkpatrick, is the team’s underwater videographer. Ok. So i’m heading down. The visibility is perfect and I can just see the bottom, my depth gauge is reading forty feet. Diving to one hundred and ten feet reveals a whole new and exciting alien world. I can’t wait to reach the bottom! These protected sites are vitally important to the future of the Bermuda black grouper. They arrive at these deep sites each year to breed in such concentrations, that without protection fishermen could easily remove an entire population. I’m just hitting the thermocline, the line where cold water meets the warm. The grouper seem to like the cooler water and it’s thought the water must be a certain temperature for spawning to occur, possibly one of the reasons why spawning occurs here. I’m at over one hundred and ten feet here, in one of the most alien landscapes i’ve ever seen. This maze of coral provides the perfect shelter for these big fish. A truly magical location. On a yearly basis these spawning sites change in size and sometimes shift location. The only way to provide complete protection while these fish spawn, and to assess the breeding numbers, is to annually tag more fish. It’s tricky keeping up with these fish as they’re being scared by the bubbles shooting out of the scuba gear. The larger fish are almost certainly male and the smaller ones female. Woo![laughter] Wicked! Hootie-hoo! ‘Hootie-hoo!’ Is right!’ So we have just had an opportunity to swim with several hundred black grouper. Phenomenal! Probably, argh, I dunno, hundreds, hundreds of them! Biggest one, at least one hundred pounds and we’ve got it all on camera for you. Now, I can’t wait to get bait in the water, capture some of these fish, get some acoustic transmitters in them, so we can track their movement around this aggregation site. Great! We found our grouper aggregation. We must have been swimming with about. Before the team brings one of these fish up for the standard tagging procedure, Neil is deploying a new tag trap designed to lower the invasive nature of the standard tagging procedure. So the standard method of tagging these fish is to bring them up to the boat at the surface and we are gonna do that. But we’re also going to try a new method, and that is to try and put the tags in the fish below the surface of the water. And for that we’re gonna use this, this is a modified Bermuda fish pot, and we’ve put portholes in it to allow us access to these fish so that we can actually implant a tag in the fish from outside. If Neil’s trap works it will reduce fish stress and stop barotrauma, a condition where gas expands in the fish’s body as it’s brought to the surface for tagging. Ok. Ready? One, two, three! With the trap deployed, attention quickly turns to bringing one of these grouper up and onto the boat for the standard tagging procedure. So we’re ready to fish. I’m gonna send my bait and weight over the side, drop it to about ninety feet, and then i’m gonna send it back away from the boat using this large float. The grouper, when he takes it, he’s gonna tire himself out trying to pull this float under water. Then it’s gonna be, hopefully, fairly simple for me to wind him back to the boat using a rod, then we’ll hand line him in. Once the fish is on board it’ll be anaesthetised using clove oil in the anaesthetic bath, then moved to the operating sling for the tag implant, and finally out into the recovery bath before release. Oh! Woah! Woah! As soon as Neil’s line hits the reef, a grouper takes the bait! Yep! There he is. This is a grouper, no question! He’s pulling like a train. It’s about thirty pounds of drag on this, and we’re gonna try and get him into the boat. We’re not gonna bring him in too quickly, because we don’t want him to get too pumped up with gas. As the fish rises the gases in it’s body expand, pressurising the fish from the inside. By slowing the grouper’s ascent, Neil tries to reduce the effects of barotrauma. Just like when we’ve done a dive and we do a safety stop, i’m gonna do a safety stop on this fish. The team’s getting everything ready behind me. Let’s see if we can get this fish into the boat, and into the anaesthetic solution, and get this tag placed. So he’s got some marks on him where he’s obviously been down into the rocks. When we first felt the bite I felt him get snagged in the rocks and then as he came out, so I was able to pull him up to the surface. Here we go. Ready? Dylan and Oscar position their gloved hands carefully on the inside edge of the gill plate to lift the grouper up and onto the boat. Once in the sling, the team move the animal into the anaesthetic bath. So we’ve got him in the sling. We’ve got his gills in the water and we’ve got the anaesthetic solution not only in the bath, but also being pumped over his gills. So we’re just gonna get him back in the sling, and then as soon as we think that he’s lost his ability to kick we’re gonna lift him out and put him in the operating table. So. Yeah. If you. Because you’ve got the gloves, if you wanna maybe pull them. Yeah. That’s probably the better way to go. The clove oil enters the grouper’s body through the gills. Once in the blood stream, it slows the grouper’s respiration and heart rate until it’s fully anaesthetised. So, Tammy. We can see this fish’s opercula moving in and out. What do you think about his condition? I think he looks pretty good, Neil. His colour’s still pretty good. So, um, he is a little scraped up, from the, from the reef, but his colour’s really good. So, um, and he’s, and his operculum is coming in and out, so he’s breathing fairly well. I think that’s enough. Yeah. Right. So now I think we’ve got him anaesthetised enough, we’re now gonna lift him out, turn him upside down, put him in our sling.So i’ve prepped my surgery site with some iodine, just as I would when I was doing any operation in my operating theatre at Endsmeet. Now i’m gonna take my surgical blade, this is a little stronger than my average scalpel blade because this is a tough fish. I’m gonna make a cut in his abdomen, just off the mid line. Squeamish? Look away!So there we are, i’m through to his abdomen. I’m gonna now extend that cut a tiny bit and i’m gonna insert my tag. Here it is, this is my satellite tag, the magnet’s been taking off, it’s already transmitting. It goes into the body cavity as simply as that. Close the body cavity. Now i’m gonna stitch him up.What actually makes it difficult suturing these fish, it’s not the skin, it’s the scales. They have leather, just as any animal skin is leather, but they also have these scales which can get caught on the tip of this needle. I’m delighted with how this has gone so far. I have to say, Doctor Trott! I think we’re making excellent time, are we not? Yes, you are. So. Doctor Trott, is also going to place a national marine fisheries tag in this fish, which will be an external identification to let us know this fish has been tagged before. Of course, the acoustic tag cannot be seen by anybody and nobody is gonna see this little suture line on this big grouper. The final stage of the process is to lower the grouper into the recovery bath. Fresh seawater flushes the clove oil from the animal and prepares it for release. So he’s starting to, er, use his pectoral fins much more. His respiration rate is coming up. He’s waking up. We’re just waiting, to, for him to get a righting reflex, for him to try and bring himself into an upright position. It’s a bit difficult because he is still gassed, remember? But once he’s fighting a bit more then we’re gonna take him to the back and let him go. Ok. Yeah, you got him? That. I’ll go a little. Choy, has opted to use a small weight. The weight will pull the animal back down to the reef, allowing it’s gases to recompress. Tammy, has also released some of it’s gases with a hypodermic needle, this is a common procedure, and ensures the fish makes it back to it’s original catch depth. Tell me when, tell me when. Whenever you guys are ready i’ll follow you, because you’re lifting. Ok, three, two, one, go! Yeah. I’m just securing the weight. You guys have all the fish’s weight. Despite the team’s care this fish has been through a very invasive procedure. But this procedure has protected this species from local extinction for several years. Three, two, one, down! As a veterinarian, Neil’s primary concern is always the welfare of the animals he’s working with. The team hope the new tag trap will vastly reduce the need for such invasive procedures in the future. Oh! So. Woo! It looked like it went great. The release weight pulled him nicely down. What happened when we popped it off? Yeah! It was amazing! The release weight worked perfectly. It went down, popped off one time, no jerking or whatever, and then it swam off and then hid in a little reef for a little bit. I’m ecstatic! Great job! Well done, Choy! Well done, team! Good job, boys! Yeah! Well done everybody! Nice one! Let’s take the camera. Yeah, you got the cap? With one grouper successfully tagged, Neil’s, attention quickly turns to the new tagging trap the team deployed earlier. So the trap position is bad, trapped between these two coral spires. It hasn’t caught any grouper, but it has caught the invasive lionfish. These fish were released by unsuspecting aquarists near, Florida, and have multiplied and traveled up the Gulf Stream to Bermuda. With a powerful sting and no natural predators these small fish may not only render my trap ineffective, they may destroy the marine ecosystem that I hold so dear. Pacific lionfish have no natural predators in the Atlantic Ocean. They breed at an alarming rate and eat all the native baby fish. When you’re ready, Andy. One of the most effective ways to remove them, is to kill them! Although this may seem cruel invasive lionfish are out-breeding, out-eating, and out-competing every other native fish in the Western Atlantic. If left unchecked lionfish will locally destroy the entire marine ecosystem. This special container keeps me safe from those dangerous stinging spines. The venom can burn like fire and the effects can last for several months. With the lionfish safely in the container Neil and the team manoeuvre the trap into a better position for it to be left overnight. The following morning brings in unfavourable weather! Yeah, we’ll help you. So the sea state has got a little worse since we were last out, but we’re just gonna head down to our fish pot and see if there are any groupers inside. If there are we’re gonna plant the tag into them, while they’re in the pot, and then release them. Avoiding the necessity of bringing them to the surface and causing that barotrauma. The team slowly make their descent down towards the trap. This is the last opportunity they have to prove the new tagging system works. Neil, is understandably apprehensive! Working at this depth is difficult. If I exert myself it changes the amount of bottom time available to work, so it’s a calm and slow descent through to one hundred and twenty five feet. The bad visibility and increased current makes it hard for the team to spot the trap. Eventually, Neil finds the sand hole and makes his final descent. I’ve finally found the trap, and we have one fairly large black grouper inside it. He seems to be sitting in there nicely. This is perfect! This is exactly what Neil was hoping for. This fish doesn’t need to be raised to the surface to be tagged, it won’t suffer from barotrauma and will be far less stressed when it’s released. I can use the dimensions of this trap to estimate the size of this fish, he’s around four feet long and about eighty five to ninety pounds. He’s calm. He has no barotrauma. That’s exactly what we wanted to achieve. It’s time for the tag! Neil is using a tag designed to be tethered to the fish. Again, it’s less invasive and only causes the fish a brief moment of discomfort. So a little jump there, but nothing unexpected. Time to open the trap door and release this fish. The success of this tagging trap may well set the benchmark for working with these fish in the future. Obtaining the same results but with a less invasive procedure is surely a good thing for these precious animals. So what we’ve achieved is the same procedure that we would normally complete topside. However, in this case, the fish has remained in it’s own environment. It has no barotrauma, very little stress, and didn’t need any anaesthesia. Although it’s more dangerous for us i’m extremely happy with today’s outcome. So before we head home i’m gonna put a bait down and try and capture one of these grouper and we’re gonna try something different. We’re gonna bring him up to about thirty five, forty, feet down below the depth at which that gas accumulation becomes a problem, and i’m gonna dive down and try and implant a tag in him while he’s attached to the leader below the surface. Something new and different that we haven’t tried before, but we hope it’ll work. As soon as the line hits the reef a grouper takes the bait! Neil immediately passes the rod to Oscar and jumps in, making his way down to meet the fish. Alright. Right now we’ve got, maybe, about a sixty pound grouper on the line. Dylan just told us he’s at about maybe forty feet. We’re gonna bring him up a little bit to about thirty, a good, er, depth so that Neil can come down and put the tag in him. Neil eventually meets with the fish at around forty feet, just before the effects of barotrauma take hold. He takes aim and implants the final external acoustic tag. Ok. That wasn’t easy, but I have managed to place one of our tethered tags in this fish. He’s around seventy pounds. Now i’m going to remove the hook. As soon as the hook is free, Neil swims the grouper down about twenty feet until it starts to swim itself back down to the reef. It is the first successful midwater tagging of a Bermudian black grouper, and represents another method of lowering the invasive nature of previous tagging studies. Ocean Vet! This is how we do it! Conditions are less than favourable. If it were, if it was pond vet it would be flat. But it’s Ocean Vet! This is what you can expect! Woo! By working with these animals in their own environment, the team have reduced the invasive and somewhat stressful nature of the standard tagging procedure. They’ve proved that it’s certainly not necessary to take these fish out of the water to be tagged. Since the filming of this project the Department of Fisheries have confirmed the ‘no fish zones’ require no further expansion. The Ocean Vet team have helped ensure the grouper remain sufficiently protected for another year! Next time on Ocean Vet Neil and the team are on a mission to document the different species and the movements of Bermuda’s inshore night sharks. Faced with dangerous night dives, heavy equipment, and new tracking technology this project proves to be the team’s most demanding yet. We’ve got a male tiger shark, juvenile, male tiger shark. After several exhausting attempts, Neil and the team finally implant an acoustic tag into none other than a shallow water Bermuda tiger shark.