Spotlight on Adventure Aquarium’s Banggai cardinalfish research with Dr. Vagelli

By Alicia Longo, Biologist – Fish & Invertebrates

It was inevitable that I learned the story of the Banggai Cardinalfish, having Dr. Alejandro Vagelli as a professor for many of my graduate courses at Rutgers-Camden! As you may have read on our blog, or if you’ve been following Dr. Vagelli’s Indonesian adventure, these fish are found only in the Banggai Archipelago of Eastern Indonesia, inhabiting shallow seagrass beds and coral reefs of sheltered bays.

Wild Banggai cardinalfish in Indonesia

Dr. Vagelli, with wild Banggai cardinalfish in Indonesia

A Banggai cardinalfish at Adventure Aquarium

A Banggai cardinalfish at Adventure Aquarium

Geographic distribution is limited due to direct development; Banggais lack a larval pelagic stage that allows most marine fishes to disperse on a large scale. Instead, males incubate fertilized eggs within their mouth, and following hatching within the oral cavity, juveniles are released after developing and absorbing their nutrient-providing yolksac. Newly released juveniles seek immediate, nearby refuge within the predator-deterring structures of host organisms (e.g. urchin spines, branching corals, and anemone tentacles) to protect themselves against predation. The fish is unable to live without the protection offered by the host with no effect on the host species, a relationship known as obligated commensalism. As Banggai cardinalfish do not exhibit any defense mechanisms, utilizing protection provided by urchins, corals, and anemones is essential at all life stages.

Brooding male Banggai:

As a Fish & Invertebrates biologist at Adventure Aquarium and Rutgers-Camden Master’s student advised by Dr. Vagelli, I had a unique opportunity to work with both Dr. Vagelli and Adventure Aquarium to research the relationship of the Banggai cardinalfish and its host anemones. In its natural habitats, Banggai cardinalfish have been reported living in close association (often observed in contact with the tentacles) with various species of anemone and the anemone-like Heliofungia coral, without triggering a predatory response from the hosts, typically observed as closing and capturing. Similar to the well-known behavior of anemonefishes with host anemones (i.e. clownfishes), Banggais seem to possess protection against the stinging cells of anemones as well.

First juveniles bred at AAQ, seeking refuge in a Long Tentacle Anemone

First juveniles bred at AAQ, seeking refuge in a Long Tentacle Anemone

By breeding Banggai cardinalfish at Adventure Aquarium, I could observe newly released juveniles interacting with the stinging tentacles of anemones, as well as older juveniles and adults. Preliminary results were very encouraging, as newly released juveniles were recorded moving in and out of the anemones’ tentacles, and often seeking refuge within the tentacles, sometimes to the point where they were unable to be seen! It was clear that the juveniles were touching the anemones’ tentacles, and further research will be conducted to help understand the physiology of this relationship.

First Banggai cardinalfish bred at Adventure Aquarium:

This research is important in the conservation of the Banggai cardinalfish, by identifying important relationships between these species, and by contributing to the captive breeding of this fish, as it has been fished to unsustainable levels due to its popularity within the marine ornamental/aquarium trade.

We are now exhibiting our captive-bred Banggai cardinalfish juveniles with host urchins and anemones at Adventure Aquarium! See them on exhibit in Zone C.

Stunning new images from Dr. Vagelli’s Banggai cardinalfish research trip to Indonesia

The Center for Aquatic Sciences at Adventure Aquarium received a new round of images from Dr. Vagelli, currently in the middle of his Banggai cardinalfish research and conservation trip to IndonesiaCheck out these newest, stunning pics!

Filming the capture of some Banggai cardinalfish

Filming the capture of some Banggai cardinalfish

Performing a census

Performing a census

Crossing to the Limbo area in a small fishing boat

Crossing to the Limbo area in a small fishing boat

Dr. Vagelli, under the rain in Limbo

Dr. Vagelli, under the rain in Limbo

Quick underwater survey

Quick underwater survey

Tagged Banggai cardinalfish

Tagged Banggai cardinalfish

Meeting up with old friends!

Meeting up with old friends!

Checking the fishing boat

Checking the fishing boat

This is part of an ongoing series of blog posts covering the Center for Aquatic Sciences at Adventure Aquarium’s Dr. Alejandro Vagelli’s current research and conservation trip to Indonesia. Follow Adventure Aquarium on Facebook and Twitter for ongoing updates.

Images supplied by Dr. Vagelli

 

Entries from the Journey: Updates from Dr. Vagelli’s Banggai cardinalfish research trip

This is part of an ongoing series of blog posts covering the Center for Aquatic Sciences at Adventure Aquarium’s Dr. Alejandro Vagelli’s current research and conservation trip to Indonesia. Follow Adventure Aquarium on Facebook and Twitter for ongoing updates.

Entries provided by Dr. Vagelli.

Banggai cardialfish, photographed by Dr. Vagelli in the Banggai Archipelago

Banggai cardialfish, photographed by Dr. Vagelli in the Banggai Archipelago

Preparing for the journey

Preparing for the journey

March 5: The journey is starting! Met up with a Swiss photographer and flew in from the Jakarta Airport. Rest of the team will be coming over in the next week. Plans on the horizon include visiting the regional governments, and in Banggai, inviting local officials to spend a few days on the boat to observe the census and data collection efforts.

The boat - home for the next couple weeks

The boat – home for the next couple weeks

March 6: The boat is a bit small, but very comfortable and the crew seems nice, so all indication is that we will be getting along with no problems and hopefully have a good time! Journey begins today at noon, heading toward Bangkulu Island, south of Peleng as the first stop. On a different note, things have changed a bit since my last travel. Weird to fly on a jet to Luwuk with air conditioning, seeing Luwuk Harbor with freight containers (and with that, an unbelievable amount of pollution and garbage), and was told that cell coverage is available in the Banggai Islands, and maybe in Peleng and another nearby island. Afraid that the Banggai Islands I knew are slowly starting to fade away…

Banggai Archipelago

Banggai Archipelago

Performing a census

Performing a census

March 7: Spent the night in North Banggai and tomorrow will meet with authorities. Before that, we will check in on a small Banggai cardinalfish population that have not been surveyed since 2002. Plan to meet officers from the fisheries office to check the veracity of reports related to conservation actions directed to the cardinalfish and collection/trade gathering, then will move to the collection center here in Banggai (Bonebaru) to investigate what has been happening there during the last years. Boat and crew are all good!

Diving for census and data collection

Surveys are done setting up random straight line transects in a particular habitat and snorkeling or diving along those counting the number of fish within a certain distance of the line. This is repeated several times to build a density estimate for a particular area.

Dr. Vagelli shows a homemade soda bottle bomb used for blast fishing

March 16: We are now safely in Masoni after yesterday going through the first and hopefully the only storm. The boat seems not equipped/designed to handle severe weather like we encountered last night (strong winds, lot of rain and waves 2-2.5 meters) so after 4 or so hours of pretty rough navigation and water starting to get into the engine room, the captain decided to seek refuge in the closer island and wait (we had departed from Peleng and were headed towards the “far east” (Taliabu area). Work is going well – a lot of surveys and data gathering. Saw more blast fishing and met with more locals and officials.

About Blast Fishing: Blast Fishing is a highly destructive fishing practice still used in many areas of the world, like Indonesia. It is primarily used to collect food fish. Fishermen use a soda bottle to create a small bomb that is then released in the water near schools of fish. As the bomb detonates, it sends a shockwave through the water that harms fishes’ swim bladders. Many of the fish die and sink to the bottom of the water, however, a small amount will survive and float to the surface. The fishermen then collect these fish and either eat them or sell them at market. Unfortunately, these bombs damage the local coral reefs, destroying critical habitats for many species, such as the Banggai cardinalfish.

An international effort: saving the endangered Banggai cardinalfish

This is the first in a series of blog posts covering the Center for Aquatic Sciences at Adventure Aquarium’s Dr. Alejandro Vagelli’s current research and conservation trip to Indonesia. Follow Adventure Aquarium on Facebook and Twitter for ongoing updates.

Banggai underwater_blog

Pictured here during a recent census in Indonesia, Dr. Vagelli has dedicated his life’s research to the cause of the Banggai cardinalfish

On Sunday, Dr. Alejandro Vagelli, Director of Science and Conservation at the Center for Aquatic Sciences at Adventure Aquarium, embarked on a journey that will take him around the world to the Banggai Archipelago in eastern Indonesia on the Mulocca Sea, the only place in the world where you can find a tiny, tropical cardinalfish that bears the region’s name.

Banggai underwater22Known as Pterapogon kauderni, Banggai cardinalfish are an iconic coral reef animal in Indonesia; and are a beautiful and unique species extremely popular with collectors. Unfortunately, this strong demand among home aquarists, a limited habitat and questionable fishing tactics has led to a significant decline in the Banggai’s native population. In fact, their numbers have dropped a staggering 89% since their rediscovery in 1994.

Dr. Vagelli

But thanks to the dedication of Dr. Vagelli and researchers at the Aquarium, the Banggai’s population decline could soon turn around. As the world’s foremost expert in Banggai cardinalfish, Dr. Vagelli has devoted his life to the study of these elusive fish since first researching them at the Aquarium in 1997. In addition to being the first biologist to fully document Banggai reproduction in captivity, he’s developed techniques for breeding this delicate species and has published numerous scientific papers on their biology and ecology. Most recently, in 2007 he appealed to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to successfully secure an “endangered” Red List ranking for the Banggai.

Through grants and private funding, Dr. Vagelli has traveled to Indonesia four times in the past fifteen years to study the Banggai, evaluate their population and establish a conservation program.

The beautiful landscape of the Banggai Archipelago

The beautiful landscape of the Banggai Archipelago

The goal is not to repopulate the species, but rather try to halt the depletion of their population through development of captive breeding methods and secure an appropriate level of conservation-based control on harvest by partnering with Indonesian researchers and government offices to ensure this species continues to survive into the future. By working with local fishermen and organizations, Dr. Vagelli has been creating a captive breeding program that can make it economically feasible for local fishermen to change their collection methods from their inexpensive, but environmentally destructive capture methods to captive-grown specimens.

Working with indigenous people of the Banggai islands to continue the development of on-site aquaculture facilities for the future production of Marine Aquarium Council (MAC)-certified fish and provide training for adequate handling and shipping of cardinalfish.

Working with indigenous people of the Banggai islands to continue the development of on-site aquaculture facilities for the future production of Marine Aquarium Council (MAC)-certified fish and provide training for adequate handling and shipping of cardinalfish.

Banggai underwater3During this month’s research trip, Dr. Vagelli will be out on a small vessel for 20+ days, during which time he’ll use a visual census method to assess fish populations throughout the species’ range and survey the geographical distribution of the cardinalfish on nearby islands.

In addition, he’ll will work with indigenous people of the Banggai islands to continue the development of on-site aquaculture facilities for the future production of Marine Aquarium Council (MAC)-certified fish and provide training for adequate handling and shipping of cardinalfish.

Stay tuned over the next few weeks as we’ll share progress updates from Dr. Vagelli and details on the incredible research that our team of researchers and biologists are doing in-house to help save this species.

Did you know?

  • The Banggai cardinalfish has a fascinating story. Unlike most marine fish, this species produces a very small number of eggs, which the males incubate in their mouths. After hatching, the embryos remain in the parent’s mouth until they complete their development.
  • The Banggai is highly prized by aquarium collectors and has been heavily exploited since its rediscovery in 1994.
  • According to its ranking by the IUCN, there’s been an 89% reduction in population from the start of the aquarium fishery in 1995 to present day.
  • The present total population is between 1.8 and 2.2 million individuals
  • Presently an estimated minimum of 700,000 – 900,000 fish are extracted every year.
  • Remarkably, the total occupied habitat for this species is just 34 square km (21 square miles), distributed among 30 islands. They are found nowhere else in the world.