By Tiffany Whitfield

Jemelyn Baldisimo, a doctoral student in the Old Dominion University's Department of Biological Sciences, has been awarded a Virginia Sea Grant Graduate Research Fellowship.

Baldisimo's research will assess the vulnerability of ornamental coral reef fishes.

The Virginia Sea Grant Graduate Student Fellowship is open to graduate students from eight universities in Virginia: Old Dominion University, Virginia Tech, the College of William & Mary, James Madison University, George Mason University, University of Virginia and Virginia Commonwealth University.

This year, there were more than 30 applicants. Baldisimo was one of eight graduate students awarded up to $40,000 to support research that addresses coastal challenges in Virginia.

"We're excited to welcome a new cohort of Graduate Research Fellows to Virginia Sea Grant," said Michelle Rodriguez, VASG's professional development coordinator. "We look forward to supporting them as they grow as professionals and apply their research to coastal challenges in Virginia."

"My proposed project involves assessing the vulnerability of marine ornamental fishes, also known as saltwater aquarium fishes, to overfishing," Baldisimo said.

The United States is one of the top importers of wild-caught saltwater fish, which are sold to hobbyists and displayed in aquariums.

"More research is needed to find out the impacts of the trade on targeted fish populations and ensure its long-term sustainability," she said. "Results from the study can help determine priority marine ornamental species for conservation and research."

The majority of exported marine ornamental fishes - those caught from reefs and sold for use in aquariums - do not have a vulnerability assessment. In 2005, more than 11 million fish were imported into the United States, raising concerns that too many were being harvested for the aquarium trade than was sustainable. As part of her research, Baldisimo will help prioritize which fish need conservation by identifying which species are most vulnerable to overfishing.

As part of the fellowship, Baldisimo will be working with a professional mentor, Jonathan van Senten, from the Virginia Seafood Agricultural Research and Extension Center (VSAREC).

"We plan to execute an outreach plan involving the creation of educational materials for pet stores and aquarium hobbyists," Baldisimo said. "This outreach plan also supports Virginia's marine ornamental aquaculture initiatives by providing educational literacy for the public."

As part of her fellowship, Baldisimo will also work with a professional mentor at the Virginia Tech Seafood Agricultural Research and Extension Center (VSAREC) to create educational products for pet stores and aquarium hobbyists. Her research will complement efforts at VSAREC to develop aquaculture protocols for popular aquarium fishes.

Prior to coming to ODU, Baldisimo was involved in a project under the National Assessment of Coral Reef Environments Program that gathered data on the status of coral reef fish populations and the fisheries livelihood in the Philippines.

"The Philippines is one of the top exporters of aquarium fishes. and it was through this project that I was able to connect with fishers who were involved in the trade," she said.

Baldisimo's other research interests include environmental sustainability and marine conservation, with special focus coral reef fishes.

"I aim to learn about various tools, such as risk-based and population genetics, to determining priority species for conservation and research," Baldisimo said.

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