Saturday, December 14, 2013

A Fish Tale, Then Fish Sticks

Aquarium scientists run investigations here on Central Wharf and travel around the world studying marine habitats and helping find solutions to some of our oceans' most challenging problems. Thanks to the recently renovated John H. Prescott Marine Laboratory, Aquarium researchers are engaging in a series of important studies that they will be posting about here on the Global Explorers Blog.

This special guest post comes from graduate student Connor Capizzano of the University of New England who is working with members of the New England Aquarium's Marine Fish Stress and Health Program to investigate discard mortality in Gulf of Maine Atlantic cod. This summer, Connor led a team of scientists, students, and professional anglers to collect data for this important study.

Did you hear that? I did… it was the crack of dawn! Time to fish!

 Like everyone on the water today, I had my own reasons for venturing off into the blue planet at a young age. Apart from my fascination with the water world (Steven Spielberg’s JAWS was a motivator), it had always been in my blood to be on the water. My grandfather used to fish his own lobsterpots out of Point Judith, RI, in the same small dingy he would use to traverse Narragansett Bay to see the annual Newport Tall Ships festival. Ever since I could remember, my father would wake me at the crack of dawn so we could fish rainbow trout on opening day. Although I was half-awake and chilled to the bone, the excitement of reeling in a fighting fish that feverishly broke the surface was unmatched by any other experience. We would also go flukin’ (groundfish for flounder) along Rhode Island’s southern coast from our family’s boat or go quahoggin’ (shellfishing for hard clams) in the nearby salt pond estuary. Life was and still is good.

Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua)

Yet, the amount of fish and their average size are not doing as well as they used to in the past. As previously mentioned in our first and second blog post, the Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua) is one of the most important recreational and commercial fish species in New England and is still attempting to recover from years of low population numbers. One of the greatest mysteries surrounding this fish is its own survival after it is caught-and-released by a recreational fisher. To shed more light on this unknown, our team (members of New England Aquarium, Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth and University of New England) fished throughout the months of July and August 2013 and tagged over 600 juvenile and adult cod off of Cape Ann, Massachusetts. About 1/5th of these cod had small acoustic tags attached to them so we could see how they moved around the southern Jeffreys Ledge area and up-down in the water. To truly understand what affected the livelihood of these cod upon release into the abyss, we assessed a series of items for each fish.

Using ordinary stopwatches, our fishers would keep track of how long each cod was fighting on the line before being brought to the surface along with its time out of the water. Each codfish was then visually checked to see where the hook caught the animal, if there were obvious injuries such as punctures or barotrauma (i.e. due to changes in water pressure), and how severe they might be to the animal. We would see a wide variety of places where the hook caught the fish along with the injuries from the hook since each cod and angler rod-reel fight were so unique. While the data are still rolling into the lab, I can say that a vast majority of the fish left the boat in “excellent” condition with a minor hole in the lip or cheek where the hook used to be. Heck, some of the fish refused to let go of the hook which lead to a series of line tangles and fishing rods hitting anglers! Measuring and tagging a confused fish also proved to be challenging on a boat rolling in the incoming swells. Most cod were very cooperative participants whereas a select few had a little attitude and retaliated with some tail smacks to the hand, arm and even face (needless to say, water and other cod-based liquids went everywhere).

One of the many codfish to be caught in our study. Pictured above is Natalie Ingram, a University of New England undergraduate, with her first ever Atlantic cod. Although a die-hard Chicago Cubs fan, we won’t hold it against her with research on the line!

Captain Marc Stettner (left) and UNE undergraduate Joe Langan (right) attempt to unravel their twisted lines. Like Murphy’s Law: If it can go wrong, it definitely will go wrong!

One of the most memorable experiences on our research trips was the thrill of the fight and the overall fish that was brought up to the boat. Since fishing gear is not selective and hooks whatever comes by, our fishers encountered much bycatch (i.e. fish you didn’t mean to or want to catch) that included spiny dogfish, pollock and cusk. Nothing is quite like watching an angler fight for their life with a fish, expecting a “wicked huge” cod, and pulling up a very short-tempered wolffish. Even better was watching an angler reel up a fish that was no bigger than the lure they used to catch it! Much like the speed at which you open a birthday present and find it is only a gift card… but that could just be me. On the other hand, the boat times also proved to be an experience to remember for some of our first-time anglers. Nothing like going out for a day of fishing and catching 15 or more fish to top it off!

Some of the typical “friendly” critters we would find on our trips, none you would want to take home! Joe Langan (right) had a particularly difficult time not catching redfish.

UNE undergraduate Ashleigh Novak with her first tagged cod, Martin. It was tough to let him go but he will hopefully help us figure out what happens after release.

Even though we had our fun at sea, the project’s goals truly hit close to home for anyone who lives near the ocean. We live in a time where cod are no longer so plentiful that you could lower a basket into the depths and pull up pounds of cod. This year’s first and second place winning cod in the Casco Bay Classic Sportfishing Tournament (Portland, ME) didn’t even weigh 30 pounds combined! Cod populations were at such low numbers in Canada that a moratorium was passed in 1992 that closed the entire northern cod stock fishery. Over the past century, people have slowly realized that nothing is forever and we are attempting to ensure our future by conserving the present. Through research projects much like our own, we gain more insight on how these fish act in the wild and in the presence of humans. We hope our results, along with others, can aid future management and allow the codfish populations to slowly rise in the Gulf of Maine. Simultaneously, we hope the same management policies can keep the fishery open for anyone and everyone who want to enjoy some fishing and cod fillets at the end of the day. Much like my own childhood, I would someday like to take my own family out on a fishing adventure that they can remember from that day forward.

-Connor Capizzano