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URI senior Michael Phillips checks a lobster trap during his research assessing how well lobster populations have recovered from the effects of a 1989 oil spill.

Coastal Fellow tracks lobster migration and recovery

URI senior Michael Phillips spent this past summer tracking the movements of lobsters into and out of Narragansett Bay and assessing how well lobster populations have recovered from the effects of a 1989 oil spill.

Working with URI fisheries researcher Kathleen Castro, Phillips spent his days at a series of artificial reefs in Dutch Harbor designed to provide a new habitat to help rebuild lobster populations. Castro and other URI researchers created the six cobblestone reefs in 1997.

“On a typical day I’d go out to the reefs to retrieve and tag lobsters, record data, and see which reefs the lobsters were caught at previously so we could trace their migratory patterns between reefs,” said the marine biology major.

Each lobster he caught was measured, tagged, assessed for disease and released back where they were found. “We wanted to have a high recapture rate because that shows that the lobsters are staying at the artificial reefs.”

Phillips wasn’t the only one recapturing the tagged lobsters. Commercial lobstermen occasionally caught the lobsters, too, as the lobsters moved from the reefs into open water.

“The tags have our phone number on them, and we’ve gotten some odd phone calls as a result of people catching the lobsters,” Phillips explained. “We had a lot that migrated up the coast and were caught in Nova Scotia. We even got a call from an Omaha, Nebraska, woman who apparently bought one of our lobsters, though they’re not supposed to be sold. When she saw the tag she didn’t know what to do!”

The good news, according to Phillips, is that the research has shown that lobster populations have increased considerably since the oil spill. “They’re down there inhabiting the reefs. Before the reefs were installed there was nothing there. But the reefs provide a community structure and bring together all sorts of creatures - shellfish, sea bass, algal growth, crabs, mollusks, starfish. It’s a whole ecosystem now.”

Funding for Phillip’s lobster research was provided by Rhode Island Sea Grant through the URI Coastal Fellows Program, a unique program designed to involve undergraduate students in addressing current environmental problems. Now in its seventh year, the Coastal Fellows Program teams students with faculty, research staff and graduate students to help them gain skills that will ensure their future success.

“The Coastal Fellows program takes you out of the classroom and gives you a sense of what really goes on,” Phillips said. “You learn about project demands, deadlines, government regulations, and how to get proposals funded.”

When he graduates in May, Phillips hopes to conduct fisheries related research on commercial fishing boats. “I also want to stretch my knowledge to learn more about tropical waters. I’m very interested in coral reef dynamics and community structures in warmer climates.”

By Todd McLeish

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