I became a member of the DEEPEND Consortium when I started working as a Graduate Research Assistant in Dr. Tracey Sutton’s Oceanic Ecology Lab at Nova Southeastern University in August 2015, and I completed my master’s thesis in May 2018. For my thesis, I examined the identification, faunal composition, and spatiotemporal distributions of larval and juvenile tunas (Family: Scombridae) in the oceanic Gulf of Mexico from 2010 to 2017. Since the Gulf of Mexico is a major spawning area for tuna, it was crucial to investigate the population dynamics of their early life stages in the area affected by the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill.
During my thesis, I developed a synthesis of the morphological characteristics used to identify the taxonomically challenging larval and juvenile tuna life stages. My thesis also increased the existing knowledge on the identification of juvenile tunas by identifying further resolution of species-specific body ratios of this taxonomically problematic life stage. Using Generalized Additive Models, species-specific environmental preferences (e.g., watermass, salinity, chlorophyll a, etc.) and seasonality were identified as the main drivers of tuna spatial distributions across the epipelagic Gulf of Mexico. Diel catchability was also examined, and results indicated that sampling at night was a better strategy for catching late-larval and juvenile size classes.