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My name is Nina Pruzinsky. I am a Master’s student at Nova Southeastern University, where I am working under Dr. Tracey Sutton. Also, I am a graduate research assistant in Dr. Sutton’s Oceanic Ecology Lab, where I am studying the identification and spatiotemporal distributions of tuna early life stages (larvae and juveniles) in the Gulf of Mexico.
Tuna are ecologically, economically and recreationally important fishes. You may know them for their large size, high speeds, and highly migratory behaviors. Fishermen enjoy catching these are fish because they average 2.5 m in size and 250 kg in weight!! They are top-predators in many coastal and oceanic environments, feeding on fish, squid and crustaceans.
Check out this video of tuna from the Blue Planet II series.
Several species have been placed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. For example, Northern Atlantic bluefin tuna is listed as endangered, yellowfin and albacares as near-threatened, and bigeye as vulnerable. Several tuna species spawn in the Gulf of Mexico due to its warm temperatures and unique hydrographic features improving the survival of their eggs and larvae.
So what exactly am I studying for my thesis?
First, I am identifying features that describe the early life stages of different tuna species. The morphology (“the study of form” or appearance of physical features) of tuna early life stages is poorly-described. Collecting fishes at these small size classes (3-125 mm SL) is very rare due to limited sampling across their wide-range of habitats. However, it is extremely important because if we do not know how to identify a fish when it is young, we cannot protect it and ensure it lives to its adult reproductive stage. So, my first task was to create an identification guide for these small fishes. The key features used for identification include: pigmentation patterns, body shape, ratios of different body parts, and fin ray counts.
To date, I have identified 11 different tuna species. These include: little tunny, blackfin tuna, bluefin tuna, yellowfin tuna, frigate tuna, bullet tuna, skipjack tuna, wahoo, Atlantic chub mackerel, Atlantic bonito, and king mackerel. Pictures of these fishes are included below. You can see how differently their early life stages look compared to their adult stages.
Larval and adult little tunny.
Larval and adult blackfin tuna.
Larval and adult king mackerel.
Larval and adult wahoo.
The second part of my project is to identify the spatiotemporal distributions of larval and juvenile tunas. Once we know what species we have, then we can identify where it is found, in what season it spawns, what type of environmental features it prefers, and so on. Basically, I am gaining knowledge about its habitat preferences, so we can help protect future populations and increase recruitment levels.
There are some small tuna species such as little tuna and blackfin tuna that do not have stock assessments nor management plans currently developed. Thus, learning about the environmental conditions that affect their distributions is essential in assessing their populations. It is evident that we still have a lot of knowledge to gain about these size classes.
This summer, I participated in an ichthyoplankton cruise in the Gulf of Mexico. Left: Jason and I are collecting organisms from the bongo net. Middle: I am holding a juvenile frigate tuna collected with a dipnet. Right: I am identifying a larval tuna under the microscope in the lab onboard.