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WMO provides scientists with rare research opportunities

Biology Professor at Salisbury University Ann Barse and four students take samples from gills to scales at the White Marlin Open tournament last week. (Zack Hoopes)

(Aug. 16, 2013) For most, last week’s White Marlin Open was a chance to socialize, unwind and revel in the day’s top catch. For a group of scientists, though, it brought a rare opportunity to study one of the area’s most popular sport fish.

“The tournaments are the only places we can see these fish and sample these fish,” said Emily Loose, a graduate student at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. She’s studying the scales on marlin and other species, piecing together how different fish are related.

“There’s very little known about marlin in general,” she said.

The fishing tournament wrapped up last Friday with 18 white marlin brought to shore (and 376 released), where Salisbury University biology professor Ann Barse has been collecting samples that range from gills to parasitic worms for 15 years. She specializes in monogenoids — a group of flat worms.

Marlin spend most of their lives in the open sea and are difficult to access. At least half of the literature on Barse’s specialty dates back to the 1800s, she said.

“It’s a chaotic mess,” she said. Mistakes in the information are “copious” because “they didn’t have the capabilities that we have today.”

One parasite might be described as living only on swordfish, for example, but she has found it in marlin, too, Barse said.

“If anything looks whacky, we try to get to the bottom of it,” she said.

By examining the parasites, one worm at a time, she aims to get a detailed picture of their relationship to the fish and other characteristics. She’s put together a list of species she’s found living on Atlantic billfish.

“I’d be happy if I could catalogue and describe — or re-describe — all the monogenoids (flat worms) on our local billfish,” she said.

The research helps scientists understand how parasites can change the fish’s tissue, said biology major at Pennsylvania State University Katie Del Guercio, who joined Barse’s team this year to get some field experience.

“I usually sell the T-shirts here, so I upgraded,” she said at the tournament last Wednesday. “I’m learning a lot about how you conduct research and the chemicals you use, and how to get interested in something.”

Laura Hopkins, a junior biology student at Salisbury University, also helped Barse this year. She’s learned the locations of different parasites on the fish over the week, she said.

“I’m really excited to be collecting the specimens we’re going to be researching in the fall,” Hopkins said.

Tournaments like the White Marlin Open are the only opportunities most researchers have to access billfish and have led to important discoveries, such as the existence of the roundscale spearfish, an animal so similar to white marlin that they both count as white marlin in the tournament, but with an entirely different genetic makeup, Barse said.

“Anything we can do to advance the knowledge of these fish is beneficial,” Loose said.

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