Studying billions of small fish in a big pond

A Victoria University of Wellington professor is helping to unlock one of the great mysteries of the ocean by investigating the fate of billions of baby fish.

Diver in the ocean

Professor Jeff Shima, director of Victoria University’s Coastal Ecology Laboratory, has been leading research expeditions to study the hidden lives of baby fish throughout the Pacific Ocean for more than 20 years.

As he will explain in his upcoming inaugural lecture, the ocean is facing many challenges—almost all of which are linked to human population growth and the pressure this places on our natural ecosystems.

“Whether it’s overfishing, pollutants or climate change—human impact on the ocean is evident. Anything we might do to mitigate these impacts requires a good understanding of the ocean, and in particular, the movements and habits of marine species,” says Professor Shima.

“Due to the sheer numbers of baby fish, small changes in their survival translate to big increases or decreases in the population. Without information on the fates of these babies, we cannot make sensible recommendations about how to manage threats that marine species might face. This is the focus of my research.”

In his lecture, Professor Shima will describe the challenges of tracking baby fish, and how he has used chemical signatures contained within the ear bones of juvenile fish as markers.

The talk will also cover the research of four Marsden Fund grants Professor Shima has been awarded since 2002.

“For my latest project, we’re looking at the reproductive strategies of coral reef fish and how this affects the success of babies,” says Professor Shima.

“Some fish are born at opportune times—times that predispose them up to arrive to a reef under the cover of darkness, when there is less moonlight and when predators are less likely to see them. Others will be dealt a bad hand.

“Our work is focused on the decisions of parents and offspring, and whether babies can overcome a bad hand. We hope our findings will be able to explain the diversity of life-history strategies that characterise a coral reef community.”