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2009 Nancy Foster Cruise
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Fishing for the Benefit of the Fishes

A perspective from a rookie bottom fisherman
by Todd Recicar

Georgia DNR crew helping capture fish for study.	Photo credit: Todd Recicar
Georgia DNR crew helping capture fish for study. (Photo credit: Todd Recicar)

After taking on the role as a boat captain for the recent fish tagging project, I have a new found respect for those that fish for a living day in and day out.  Believe me when I say that slackers need not apply.  For starters, charter boat captains rely on their daily charter rates in order to pay for fuel, fishing equipment, crew, ice, maintenance, insurance, electronics, and safety equipment.  I also found that sometimes they rely on less than 5 hours of sleep before the next day of fishing begins.  For this project I did not have the pressure of making my daily cut or keeping the paying customers satisfied but I did have the pressure of doing my part to make the science happen.  The more fish we can catch, the more accurately scientists can learn about the fishes within the sanctuary, thus leading to a better understanding of how we can manage the sanctuary.  No pressure, right?

Eric Robillard enjoys calm seas while trying to capture study subjects
Eric Robillard enjoys calm seas while trying to capture study subjects. (Photo credit: Todd Recicar)
Logistically the Nancy Foster mission was very complicated.  The 187 foot NOAA Ship Nancy Foster served as a floating laboratory for the fish tagging project on top of several other projects running simultaneously.  Both of the Gray’s Reef boats were underway each day.  One boat was used to catch fish and the other to store and/or transfer the caught fish to the Nancy Foster.  The transfer boat, the R/V Sam Gray had a minimum of two people on board at all times.  The fishing boat, the R/V Joe Ferguson had a minimum of 6 people on board at all times.  The NOAA Ship Nancy Foster had 25 crewmembers and 15 scientists on board.  There were collaborations between NOAA OMAO (Office of Marine and Aviation Operations), NOAA NCCOS (National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science), Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary, Georgia Department of Natural Resources – Coastal Resources Division, the University of Georgia Aquarium, and the University of Connecticut.  The entire Nancy Foster cruise, including the fish tagging portion took months of planning to get to this point so I repeat, NO PRESSURE!

Red snapper and gag in the holding tank on board the sanctuary's research vessel.
Red snapper and gag in the holding tank on board the sanctuary’s research vessel. (Photo credit: Todd Recicar)
The success rates in bottom fishing are directly proportional to knowing the bottom topography and being able to position the boat directly on top of it.  When not migrating for spawning purposes, grouper and snapper often will remain within a short distance of a rocky ledge.  Through years of research at Gray’s Reef, including dive surveys and side-scan sonar mapping, we know where many of the fish are likely to be.  Even during this project we had divers go down the day before or even the day of fishing to confirm the fish were “on location”.  Oh the fishermen’s optimism is so strong at the beginning of the day.  We had visions of landing fish after fish dancing in our heads as we would head out to our hunting grounds.  Then there were more visions of happy scientists aboard the Nancy Foster sorting through important acoustic data from dozens of fish.  How hard could it be to tag nearly 30 fish?  I mean we have experienced Georgia DNR fishermen on board, extremely calm seas, accurate coordinates to the likely location of the target species, our holding tanks are constantly pumping seawater in preparation for the arrival of caught fish and our captains, myself and NOAA Corps Officer LTJG Chad Meckley are confident in our abilities to place the Research Vessel Joe Ferguson on top of the fish.   How could you not be optimistic?

Well in short, we caught a third of the scientist’s desired quota.  This isn’t a bad thing, it’s actually good.  More fish, more data.  But what about our optimism of catching our quota?  Why didn’t we catch more?  Well if you are a fisherman or know the ways of a fisherman, there are a whole slew of theories.  Let’s start with a superstitious one.  Yes, superstitions play a big part into the big picture of a successful fishing day.  Bananas on boats!  This is a big no-no.  On one of the days one of our team brought a banana on board unknowingly.  We did not find out until late in the day.  No fish were caught that day so we’ll chalk the successes of that day to the fact that we had bananas on board. 

Dawn Franco with red grouper she caught.
Dawn Franco with red grouper she caught. (Photo credit: Donna McDowell)
Good bait is critical if you want to catch good fish.  Our two best fishing days coincidentally were our two best bait catching days.  On these days we were able to catch fresh Atlantic Menhaden and Greenback herring on our way out to Gray’s Reef.  These species, when fresh and lively seem to be more effective for catching grouper and snapper.  The other days that grouper and snapper were not caught were not so great bait days.  One day the crew caught a nice load of menhaden however the seas had picked up early in the day and the bait took a good thrashing on the transit out to the reef.  By the time fishing commenced the bait was not so lively.  That day there were several sharks and black sea bass caught, a possible sign that the bait was not so enticing that day for our target species. 

GADNR Crew Geoffry Meeks and Eric Robillard (right) show a scamp caught by Eric.
GADNR Crew Geoffry Meeks and Eric Robillard (right) show a scamp caught by Eric. (Photo credit: Donna McDowell)
Finding and catching menhaden and herring is a hit or miss situation.  Some mornings you can search for hours and never come across these bait pods.  In this case you have to resort to jigging a sabiki rig near buoys and live bottom areas.  A sabiki rig is a bait rig that can have anywhere from four to eight miniature hooks spaced approximately 12 inches apart.  Each hook has a piece of material affixed to it so that it resembles a tiny fish.  These rigs are very effective at catching small fish such as pinfish, tomtate and black sea bass.  Actually on the first day of the project a gag that was eventually tagged was caught on a sabiki rig! 

Todd Recicar (right) and Tom Recicar with a red snapper.
Todd Recicar (right) and Tom Recicar with a red snapper. (Photo credit: Donna McDowell)
Tides and currents also play a large role in fishing.  Not only are tidal stages known for triggering feeding activity in fish but they can make a big difference in the effectiveness of presenting your bait on the bottom.  This was my next lesson in learning what it takes to be a good captain.  I soon found out that positioning a 41 foot boat over a small section of live bottom is a challenge when the current is running in one direction and the wind and waves are coming from another.  Add in four fishing lines trying to maintain a straight up and down attitude while in the water.  As captain you have to keep in mind that these four fishing lines are prone to getting caught in the propellers so maneuvering the boat has to be done in a calculated fashion. 

To summarize our efforts I have to say that for all of the variables involved in fishing, it was a success.  Four gag, 2 red snapper, 1 scamp, and 1 red grouper were caught, tagged, and released at the location of capture.  On top of the target species that were caught, we caught and released 3 cobia, 2 king mackerel, a few Spanish mackerel, many Atlantic Sharpnose sharks, and dozens of black sea bass.  So it goes to show unfortunately that hook and bait types are not selective in what species are caught. 

Spud Woodward prepares to catch bait.
Spud Woodward prepares to catch bait. (Photo credit: Donna McDowell)
We would like to give a special thanks to all of the Georgia DNR fishermen who rose early in the mornings to drive from Brunswick to Savannah each day so that we could depart the docks by 0700.  Your patience and efforts did not go unnoticed.  You also made the captain’s job much easier by being proficient fishermen.  Also thanks go to Devon Dumont and Karen Paquin from the University of Georgia Aquarium for being on board as our fish husbandry experts.  Their expertise in fish handling and swim bladder deflation were critical to our successful releases of 8 tagged fish.  To all of the volunteers who changed their schedules in order to donate their time aboard our vessels, thank you again. 

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