By Jacob Waring
The striped bass, mouths wide open, anticipate their food.
Each fish crowds around the top of the tank, aggressively vying for the prime position to devour their meal: a mixture of shrimp, scallops and fish bits.
As the food is dropped into the tank and a mini-cascade of water erupts as the fish eat their meal, splashing Melisa Beecher, junior, biology (7–12) major.
“They’re the funnest [sic] animals you’ll ever meet because they have their own personality,” says Beecher. “But they also can turn on you and soak you.”
She has been working with the aquariums since fall of her sophomore year. After contacting Sean Grace, Biology department chairperson, it led to an introduction to Professor Vincent Breslin of the Environment, Geography and Marine Sciences Department and an opportunity to work in the aquarium lab.
She had previously conducted rounds running the Sound School’s fish production lab. She says she mainly worked with the school’s juvenile lobsters and that experience allowed her to work in the labs with the fish at Southern.
“Taking care of these animals are life changing,” says Beecher.
Her interactions with aquatic life changed her in unexpected ways.
“Ever since taking care of the lobsters, I could never eat seafood again, period,” she says. “I used to really enjoy lobster when I was a kid. And now I can’t even look at them.”
With the lobsters, she says it is almost stomach turning because she has witnessed them hatching, being only a few millimeters long. And then watching them grow from millimeters to centimeters. Then forming into tiny lobsters.
“They just have these personalities that I’ve never seen an animal have,” Beecher says. “That experience really changed me. That was the first time the animals have changed me and my ways of living because I’ve I haven’t eaten seafood since then.”
Beecher says her time at Southern taking care of animals such as spider crabs, striped bass, black bass, horseshoe crabs and more continue to have a profound effect on her.
“Getting up close with the fish after taking care of the juvenile lobsters, and continuing that in college and here in the lab really changed my perspective of fishing in general as well,” she says.
Beecher says she used to go fishing with her dad when she was a little girl and it was a hobby that they bonded over. Yet, the potential harm to any fish she could catch had eliminated the appeal of the activity.
She says when catching the fish and hooking it in its mouth, people should view it as if somebody put a hook in
their mouth—it will bleed, and it is going to hurt.
“It could potentially die of infections, die of being hurt. And then it’s going be slower in swimming, especially if you hook it in its gill or on a fin,” she says.
“It’s definitely going to have some trouble swimming and some disabilities there and it could potentially be eaten by another fish.”
Renée Chabot, a senior environmental chemistry major, is one of the other students who works in the aquarium labs. She says she became interested after she had the tour at the aquarium and was really interested what the science building had to offer her as an incoming student.
“I saw the aquariums and the tanks and they just kind of blew me away. And I thought, ‘oh, I want to work here,’” she says.
Eventually, she says she had an honors class with Breslin, where they did a lot of marine studies and did tasks such as sediment digests. Interactions with Breslin and that class led her to choose chemistry and toward a path working with the aquariums.
One of the life lessons she learned while working with the wildlife in the aquariums was patience. Chabot says she learned that the fish can get very finicky; they have big personalities and are extremely intelligent.
Her experiences made her cultivate a desire to have her own saltwater tank when she is older.
“[A saltwater tank is] something that I can take care [and] let flourish in my own time, which was crazy because before I’d worked here, I’d never really wanted to do something like that,” says Chabot. “But after working here with all the fish, I just can’t imagine my life without working on something similar.”
According to Beecher and Chabot, the fish are taken care of throughout the week and on weekends. They both say that students that have worked in the aquariums take care of the large tanks, fish species and the invertebrate in the smaller touch tanks.
A normal routine, says Beecher, is that students who come in the mornings start opening the lab and ensuring all the animals are safe and healthy.
“I usually start by going around to the tanks and making sure all the animals are OK,” says Beecher. “Nobody looks to be in distress. Nobody looks sick of all things. I would start with feeding the different animals.”
Students take the animals’ meals out of the fridge, defrost them in water in one of the touch tanks and chop them up into the appropriate sizes.
While eating, the starfish tend to have their meals tucked in the corner of their arms where they will move on their own to devour it.
The spider crabs will have the food in front of them, and students watch to make sure they eat their meals, and to ensure the cleanliness of the tanks.
The horseshoe crabs either have the food placed in front of them and crawl over to eat, or they are lifted gently, and the food is placed in their mouths then they are placed back into their own touch tanks. In the two bigger aquarium tanks, the fish have their food strategically dropped to ensure even dispersion to all fish.
A certification is required to feed some fish. At Southern, that’s true for feeding the mummichog, a minnow-like killifish.
Breslin says it is within the Coastal Marine Studies 210 that students work with the mummichog.
Beecher says the students in this class get to take care of the mummichog tanks throughout the entire semester, and they learn the basics of how the lab runs.
She also says these students learn the basics of how a small system would run which they can apply that knowledge to a larger system in the rest of the lab.
One of these students was Morgan Damato, a senior elementary education major.
“We had to do research papers throughout the semester on each field trip that we took. And we would do lab days where we took care of and clean the tanks for the animals,” says Damato.
She says that on Mondays the class had lecture and the students would receive explanations as to what the instructor had planned for a field trip or in the lab.
“It’s in those classes that the students actually do work with the fish and maintain aquarium, but that’s only during the fall semester,” Breslin says. “During the other semesters, we have a large display aquarium. These house fish species that we typically find near Long Island Sound.”
Breslin says an outside consultant from the Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk comes once a week to provide aid in areas that he and the students cannot do.
“[The consultant] helps clean the aquarium and changes some of the maintenance on the equipment that we’re not necessarily qualified to take,” says Breslin.
He says they follow the guidelines set forth by The Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee to ensure the safety of all aquatic life.
“There are very strict protocols and procedures that we maintain in this lab to provide safe, healthy habitats for the fish,” he says. “We’re being examined and watched. They look at our records and examine our practices. We conform to best practices.”
To many of the students who work with the animals, the experiences they have accumulated over time is priceless.“It is probably the best experience,” says Chabot, “and is continuing to be the best experience of my college