Burrfish Bonanza Begets “Boatlift” to Freedom

October 19, 2020

Enterprising aquarists at the Woods Hole Science Aquarium got more than they bargained for in this year’s burrfish husbandry project.

Young burrfish in a glass aquarium tank with synthetic seaweed for cover

Consider the striped burrfish. Round but boxy. Eyeballs that look forward, yet askance. Mouth turned up at the corners like a smile, centered in a square face. Spikes erupt from its skin, and the most gossamer of fins flutter furiously from its sides as this armored oddball propels its way through life. 

When flustered, a burrfish blows itself up into a spikey orb that looks like the head of a medieval mace. Otherwise, it’s tranquil, curious, and cute as a Disney cartoon star. 

No surprise: striped burrfish are one of the most popular animals at the Woods Hole Science Aquarium. 

The aquarium gets most of its animals by collecting them from local waters. Striped burrfish are only around during the warmer months. So, what to do when your big burrfish have been returned to the wild and no baby burrs are around to replace them? Aquarists in Woods Hole, led by Katie Dever and Alison Brodet, found a way.

The Eggs and Us

They look innocent enough—zipping around their weedy tanks, basking in the overhead light, and waiting for delicious foods to drop regularly into their midst from unseen hands. But these guys get up to some hanky-panky when the mood strikes.

“We cull millions of eggs that these ladies produce,” said Dever. “There are so many eggs they would otherwise clog the tank filters.” 

The aquarium staff is also known to engage in some egg-based hanky-panky. Armed with healthy eggs, inquiring minds, and a jerry-rigged nursery system, they set out to grow their own striped burrfish ensuring a year-round supply.

The first experiments were accidental. Someone noticed that a few eggs unceremoniously dumped into disposal buckets were actually starting to vibrate with inner life. “We took a closer look and decided to try to get some grown fish out of these eggs,” said Dever.

The first try was a disaster; everything died at the earliest phase. A glimmer of hope with some improved methods followed. In the next attempt, a lone egg among thousands matured into the animal now on exhibit, affectionately known as “McFats.” 

Then in winter 2020, for a brief shining moment, the third try warmed the hearts of every staff member. Multiple tiny burrfish were clearly visible in a nursery tank littered with less fortunate spawn. In the subsequent grim Season of COVID-19, it was a feel-good project.

About 50 tiny burrfish swimming under a microscope lense
About 50 tiny tadpole-like early-stage burrfish viewed under a microscope. Photo: NOAA Fisheries

Then the nightmare started. Said Brodet, “It wasn’t exactly like tribbles on the Starship Enterprise, but that was what came to mind.”  

Astonishingly, by the summer of 2020, around 80 striped burrfish were thriving in the quarantine section of the Aquarium. This is valuable real estate meant for new and recovering fish. It’s not large enough to accommodate the healthy bouncing baby burrfish that were increasingly ravenous, weighty, and clearly in need of more room. 

With winter closing in and waters starting to cool, options for release dwindled even as the burrfish grew. Dever sent 20 to other aquariums, but once the burrfish got too big, shipping to other aquariums was too expensive. Release from more southerly locations in our region was confounded by COVID-19 travel restrictions. About five could be retained for the main collection. 

Every day, looking at the ever-growing bundles of cuteness, staff pondered a long-term solution.

Boatlift to Freedom 

A small NOAA research vessel is homeported at the Woods Hole Laboratory. The 72-foot Gloria Michelle usually conducts trawl surveys and sets and retrieves scientific equipment moored at sea. It helps train scientists to use the fisheries scientific computer system, which automates data recording during research surveys.  

Local waters were still warm enough for burrfish, and presented an unexpected last opportunity. Dever and Brodet wondered—could a “boatlift” be arranged to get the burrfish into their natural habitat before the weather changed? 

Fortunately, Officer-in-Charge of the vessel, Lt. Ben Vandine, had a sympathetic ear. VanDine is an officer in NOAA Corps, the uniformed service that operates NOAA ships and aircraft.  

The aquarists made a good case for a release mission that would meet the Aquarium's standards for animal care and husbandry. Having raised these fish, they had a responsibility to release them into an appropriate environment if at all possible.

At last, the stars aligned.

Burrfish in a dip net, being lifted from a portable cooler on deck.
Adult burrfish being lifted from a portable cooler using a dip net, ready for release into the ocean.

On August 27, a lovely New England late summer day, the Gloria Michelle set off for waters just south of Martha’s Vineyard. In addition to the usual gear, they carried eight coolers packed with burrfish: 50 raised by the aquarium, plus nine very large adults from the main collection. The crew carefully scooped the fish out of the coolers with a small net and released them gently over the side. 

“We are committed to environmental stewardship on the R/V Gloria Michelle. Even though we typically catch fish, we were happy to collaborate with the aquarium and actually release fish in this mission, “ said VanDine. 

“The Gloria Michelle and her crew have helped us out over the years with collecting, special events, and even our annual visit from Santa,” said Teri Frady, chief of the aquarium’s operations. “Once again, they were there for us, and helped ensure a happy ending to the story.”

As far as the future is concerned, burrfish propagation is on the shelf as the aquarium has all that it needs. That said, other species look promising. Some rosefish in the collection are extruding egg veils, and they have a very interesting and complex reproductive cycle …



Last updated by Northeast Fisheries Science Center on October 20, 2020