August 6, 2012

High school students make important scientific discovery as part of MIT Sea Grant's Ocean Science Internship

CAMBRIDGE, MA - AUGUST 6, 2012 - A group of four outstanding Massachusetts and Connecticut high school students are the first on record to encounter and identify non-native European rock shrimp in Boston Harbor last month.

The students were conducting a transect survey at Lovell's Island as part of MIT Sea Grant College Program's annual Ocean Science Internship to study intertidal ecosystems on the Boston Harbor Islands by assessing water quality and species diversity. Marine Science Educator Kate Longley, who designed and led this year's program, said the interns spent the first week of the program at MIT learning and preparing for the surveys. "We had developed an inventory of species we expected to see out there, and the European rock shrimp wasn't on our list," noted Longley. "We didn't even know what it was at first, so we took photos and brought the unique shrimp back to the lab at MIT Sea Grant. We soon understood that this was an important finding."

The European rock shrimp (Palaemon elegans) was first discovered on the East Coast in 2010 in Salem, MA. It was found again in 2011 further north in Gloucester and back down south in Swampscott, MA. Researchers believe it was first introduced to this side of the Atlantic through ballast water. Ballast water is used for commercial cargo ships to stabilize the vessels during an ocean voyage. Commercial vessels take on ballast in foreign ports that often are home to species non-native to the port where ballast water is discharged. Many organisms survive the voyage and enter New England ports via ballast discharge; those that become established can spread to new areas disrupting native communities. The arrival of the European rock shrimp is of great concern because it is a fierce predator and likely to disrupt our native communities.

MIT Sea Grant Environmental Scientist Chris McIntyre joined Longley and the interns for a second visit to Lovell's Island a few days later to see if they might find additional rock shrimp. To their amazement, the scientists and interns quickly discovered not one, but many, including young shrimp. "What this finding means for the ecosystem is not always clear," explained McIntyre. "The potential impacts of this new introduced species can be anything from outcompeting native species to disrupting the food web for fish."

"It's depressing to find something that could potentially destroy an ecosystem," exclaimed program participant, Carolann Schack, a 2012 high school graduate from Glastonbury, CT who is to enroll this fall at the University of Miami. "We were expecting to find only a few, but then we realized there were so many of them."

Longley explained, "Understanding how species spread is an important step in learning how to mitigate their impact." McIntyre added that closely monitoring the spread of foreign species and explaining their impact to the public raises awareness and helps prevent new invasions. He believes that pushing for stronger policies and enforcing recent legislation with tighter regulations for the shipping industry can help prevent new introductions in the future.

New U.S. Coast Guard regulations will require vessels to have treatment facilities on board to eliminate or greatly reduce the number of species released with ballast water. With the rapid rate of globalization, and ships getting bigger and faster, McIntyre said the problem is complicated. "It's a tricky problem, because you're not going to slow down trade because of an issue on marine invasive species. So it's important to bring the issue into the light so that people can know what's happening, and to gather support through public awareness."

The ocean science interns were thrilled to be part of the important discovery during their month-long experience at MIT Sea Grant. They were not only excited with the important rock shrimp discovery, but they also took great pride in knowing that the rest of their data is relevant. High schooler Pavlina Karafillis of Winchester, MA said her favorite part of the program is the feeling that she is helping to produce valuable data to be submitted to the Boston Harbor Islands National Park Service. "It's really exciting," she exclaimed, "that as a 17-year-old who isn't even majoring right now in marine biology, I can actually do this right now through this program." "It feels so real," echoed Jeffrey Ho, a high school intern from Sudbury, MA. He added, "I finally feel like I'm doing something that can make a change, and it's just a great feeling."

The rock shrimp discovery will be highlighted in a forthcoming scientific publication, where the names of the high school students will appear.

About the Ocean Science Internship
The Ocean Science Internship is an annual four-week long program for high school students. The interns learn to ask questions and design a sampling program. The emphasis of this program is skill building and data management and analysis. Participating students are asked to problem solve in the field, learn to recognize and identify many species of marine wildlife, collect data in a systematic way, and analyze that data so that they can tease out information about some of the complex ecological interactions that occur in the harbor's intertidal zone. In support of ongoing studies at the Boston Harbor Islands, the students conducted ecological surveys, assessed ecosystem health, and assisted in the monitoring of non-native species in the intertidal zone, under the guidance of MIT researchers. The students' data show that non-native species have the highest biomass in the two intertidal locations they studied. The MIT Sea Grant's Ocean Science Internship is supported in partnership with the Boston Harbor Islands National Park Service.

About Sea Grant
The mission of the MIT Sea Grant College Program is to employ innovative research, education and outreach strategies to responsibly use and sustain the vital marine resources of Massachusetts. The issues manifested and addressed locally are global in nature, and are thus widely applicable. Compelling challenges demand our attention as a solo entity, and in partnership with other groups living and working on the coasts and at sea. MIT Sea Grant brings the substantial intellectual abilities of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and our sister universities to bear on ocean-related challenges requiring an extraordinary technical contribution. In meeting these challenges, we expand human understanding of the ocean and establish the infrastructure to sustain the initiatives and talent pool needed to address complex issues of critical and fragile marine resources.

Contact: Judith Pederson
MIT Sea Grant College Program
Tel: 617-252-1741

Visit the 2012 Ocean Science Internship blog to read the students' detailed descriptions of their experiences:

See the following MIT Sea Grant publication to learn ways to stop the spread of invasive marine species:

Find information about ballast water regulations on the U.S. Coast Guard webpage:


Left: Student holds up a sample of the European rock shrimp discovery on Lovell's Island.
Upper right: interns search for more rock shrimp.
Lower right: Final presentation day at MIT Sea Grant
(L-R) Interns Isabelle Holt, Jeffrey Ho, Pavlina Karafillis, Carolann Schack, and Kate Longley