Distribution and Migration of the Ocean Sunfish, Mola mola, in the North Atlantic

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Theme Area: 
Fisheries Resources


W. Huntting Howell UNH - Department of Biological Sciences Principal Investigator

Students Involved:

Inga Potter UNH - Department of Biological Sciences

The ocean sunfish, Mola mola, has a worldwide distribution, yet its biology is poorly understood. A pelagic zooplanktivore with a unique body structure, M. mola makes up a significant portion of bycatch in Pacific and Mediterranean commercial fisheries and is a valued food fish in Asia. Though it is a common resident, there is no data on occurrences of ocean sunfish by catch in the Atlantic. Presently, there is no record of the status of M. mola populations in any part of the world. Because there is no existing baseline of information on the basic biology, distribution and abundance of M. mola, researchers have no idea how the global population is faring.

Our project will focus on the application of advanced technology towards our understanding of marine fisheries and ecosystems, and the development of predictive models and management strategies that will aid in the management of a local yet poorly understood fish species. The primary objectives of the study are to determine the general distribution of Mola mola off the northeast coast of the United States and to look for migratory patterns and behavior using pop-up archival transmitting tags (PATs). Results of the study will provide information about the distribution, migration and behavior of this seldom studied species, which will contribute to our understanding of its global population dynamics and biology. It will also help determine what, if any, management strategy is necessary to protect it. In addition, data on distribution and migration patterns of Mola mola may serve as a useful indicator of nutrient rich areas with high productivity, where other important marine organisms can be found. Results of the study will be useful to fisheries managers, biological oceanographers and others studying large, ocean dwelling animals.

To achieve these objectives, the project will include an analysis of data from the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium Database (1974-present) and data from the OBIS-SEAMAP Database (1989-present) that report on aerial sightings of Mola mola in Northeast shelf waters, and tagging of 15 individuals using specialized new tagging technology in the form of pop-up archival transmitting tags in order to track their movement over a period of time. Fish will be tagged in the Gulf of Maine during the months of July/August beginning in 2005 to determine where they travel from this region and to gain insight into swimming speed, diving behavior and temperature/depth preferences.

The summer of 2005 will be utilized as a pilot season for the proposed project. Satellite tags will be attached to five fish in August 2005, and a mola will be dissected in the laboratory prior to tagging to determine the best point of tag attachment. Tagging techniques will also be tested to determine the most efficient and effective method. Dr. Molly Lutcavage of UNH and Dr. Tierney Thys of www.oceansunfish.org will also contribute to the development of tagging protocol and assist in the tagging study.