Following the Fish.  Winter tagging striped bass off the Carolina Coast.by Erik Zlokovitz
S
ummers off the New England Coast, winters in North Carolina... It's a way of life for many. And who could argue - both Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard are wonderful places to spend the warmer months, and the Outer Banks aren't so bad in February...

However we're talking fish here. Each year, the coastal migratory striped bass that visit the Chesapeake to spawn in the spring hit the road for the chilly waters of the North Atlantic by late May, then return south to the waters off coastal North Carolina for the winter months. And for the past 17 years, so has a crew of fisheries biologists from Maryland's Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

Along with a handful of sister agencies, DNR follows the striped bass down south of the coast of Cape Hatteras, hoping for some warm(er) weather while partaking of a little scientific research under the auspices of the annual winter Southeast Area Monitoring and Assessment Program (SEAMAP) tagging cruise. Since 1988, this effort has provided a wealth of fishery-independent data for many species that inhabit the Mid-Atlantic coast.

When it was originally developed, the main purpose of the cruise was to capture and tag as many striped bass as possible. The Outer Banks are an important wintering and feeding area for stocks of Atlantic striped bass, including those from the Chesapeake. In early spring, typically in late February and March, the population begins migrating back north and inland to their native spawning grounds. The majority of these fish will swim into the spawning reaches of the Chesapeake Bay tributaries, while others will head to Albemarle Sound and the Roanoke River, or even further north to the Delaware and Hudson Rivers.

This year's cruise took place on the Duke Marine Laboratory Research Vessel (R/V) CAPE HATTERAS from January 15-25. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) ship OREGON II, which has been used on the majority of tagging cruises, was in dry dock for refitting and not available for this year's trip. Participants on this year's cruise represented several state, federal and academic agencies, including DNR, NOAA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries (NCDMF), and East Carolina University (ECU).

Getting to Work
The view from the stern of the R/V CAPE HATTERASThe R/V CAPE HATTERAS employed one 65-foot long bottom trawl for 10- to 30-minute tows and worked along the Outer Banks, one to nine miles offshore. This year's cruise proved to be a success, with biologists tagging 2,708 striped bass, the fourth highest number in the survey's history. This number is notable because it exceeded the existing long-term 16-year average catch of 1,914 striped bass while using only one net (in most past cruises, two nets were deployed). The primary focus was on the zone between Nag's Head and Corolla northward to the Virginia state line; however the highest concentrations were found offshore of Kitty Hawk and Corolla in 40 to 50 feet of water. Toward the end of the trip, gear was also deployed further south near Oregon Inlet, where a booming recreational fishery for striped bass has developed during the last few winters.

Over the years, data and samples have been collected on an increasing number of species that are routinely encountered on the cruise, and the operation has Holding tank filled with stripers to be tagged and released.evolved into a true multi-species program. Species sampled include Atlantic sturgeon, spiny and smooth dogfishes, summer and southern flounder, red drum, monkfish, weakfish, spotted sea trout, hickory shad, American shad, Atlantic mackerel, skate and horseshoe crabs. (A major effort is also under way to tag as many spiny dogfish as possible, and more than 3,000 were tagged in the sixth year of a cooperative effort between the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, ECU and the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council.) Overall, the scientific party and crew of the R/V CAPE HATTERAS processed a total of 8,450 fish representing 17 different species.

No Time for Shuffleboard
This is hardly the stuff of a Carnival cruise. There is no pool to bask beside, no midnight buffet, and no live entertainment, except perhaps for the weary soul who breaks into song at 4 a.m. to counter the chill and stay awake. Scientists are divided into two watch groups working round-the-clock and switching up every six hours. Most unpopular is the "graveyard shift" of midnight to 6 a.m., which often means cold and miserable conditions on deck.

R/V CAPE HATTERAS docked at Beaufort, N.C.Each watch group or tagging team has a watch leader who serves as deck boss and foreman, maintaining the steady flow of work. Within each group are one or two taggers, a data recorder, "fish wranglers" and sample collectors. Fish wranglers are in charge of lifting heavy and often vigorous striped bass off the deck or out of the holding tanks and feeding them in a steady stream to the taggers. The taggers then measure the fish, use a metal detector to scan the cheek area for hatchery-implanted coded wire tags, remove a scale sample for aging purposes, insert tags into the striped bass, and finally, release them over the side of the ship. Quite a process and one that requires both speed and efficiency. I served as second tagger and principal striped bass data coordinator on the morning and evening shifts.

Bill Cole of USFWS has been the chief scientist and coordinator of the cruise since its inception in 1988. He was often seen discussing fishing strategy and charts with the captain and first mate in the wheelhouse or pacing around the wet lab and working deck. He is famous for his Ahab-like intensity in pursuing schools of striped bass.

Roger Zirlott, Chief Bosun of the OREGON II, out of Pascagoula, MS, served as the chief fisherman and NOAA representative. His seaman skills on deck and knowledge of the fishing gear and vessel operation were crucial to the successful outcome of the cruise.

The crew works at the tagging station.Most hauls contained many small members of the drum family: croaker, spot, kingfish, spotted sea trout and weakfish. Commonly encountered bottom fish included spotted hake and summer flounder. Baitfish such as menhaden, bay anchovy, Atlantic herring, Atlantic mackerel, and hickory shad were abundant, which helped to attract and keep striped bass in the area. Various species of skate, starfish, crabs, whelks and other small bottom-dwelling species were also encountered. Smooth dogfish were noticeably absent, and numbers of loligo squid were down significantly (a major disappointment to the cook and other fans of calamari onboard the vessel).

Unfortunately, we did not come across large numbers of more "exotic" species. Only one Atlantic sturgeon was captured and tagged this year, a major drop from previous cruises (the record number of sturgeon captured and tagged was 22 during the 2002 cruise). There were also no encounters with thresher sharks or giant bluefin tuna; however, a large monkfish (also known as angler or goosefish) estmated at 30 pounds was captured. A single pollock, a member of the codfish family more commonly found in New England waters, was also caught. Occasional sightings of humpback and fin whales surfacing and spouting near the ship added to the thrill of the experience and aided in breaking the monotony.

A Fish with A Fatal Attraction
Author Erik Zlokovitz holds a huge monkfish, which despite its scary look, is considered by many to be a delicacy.Perhaps the most exciting event of the whole cruise was the recapture of a striped bass that was originally tagged by Don Cosden of the DNR Fisheries Service on April 7, 1987, during a gillnet survey on the Choptank River. After 17 years at large, the streamer portion of the tag had been cut off (if removed by a fishermen, the capture was never recorded) and only the internal anchor, or "button," remained. Stephen Taylor of NCDMF, one of the watch leaders, was alerted to the presence of the button by a telltale scar along the side of the fish near the pectoral fin. Unfortunately, the fish had to be sacrificed in order to extract the tag from inside the muscle wall.

We immediately suspected that the tag was quite old, based on the fact that it had a five-digit tag number (all new tags have a six-digit number), and was printed with an outdated "301" area code and former location of the USFWS office. A check of the DNR and USFWS tag databases confirmed the fish was, in fact, tagged in 1987 (President Reagan was still in office)! A male, it was only 17 inches long when originally tagged and had grown to 32 inches by the time it was recaptured on January 20. A 17-inch striped bass is most likely three to four years old, which means this fish was 20 or 21 years old when captured. Its relatively small size after such a long period of time may be explained by the fact that male striped bass tend to have a slower growth rate and lower maximum size -- a female of similar age may reach 50 inches in length! This recapture verifies the longevity of striped bass and the distances they cover while migrating.

A fish "wrangler" holds a striped bass before tagging.The striped bass tagging data from the cruise is used in a variety of ways. Recapture data provided by fishermen gives managers important information on migration patterns, growth rates and survival estimates. The information is also used to determine general abundance, size and age distributions, length-at-age, weight-at-age and contribution of hatchery fish, all of which are important monitoring tools in the ASMFC Striped Bass Management Plan for the entire Atlantic coast. Recently, the data has been entered into a geographic information system (GIS) database that will give a better view of travel patterns and habitat use off the coast of North Carolina, and ultimately help us maintain viable populations of this important fish.

The tags applied to striped bass during the North Carolina survey are the same one might encounter here in the Chesapeake Bay, Maryland coastal bays or along the Ocean City coastline. Anglers catching tagged fish are asked to call the USFWS at 1-800-448-8322 with the date, the location, method of capture and whether the fish was kept or released.

Erik Zlokovitz
is a Fisheries Biologist with DNR's Striped Bass Stock Assessment Project.  Photos were provided by Zlokovitz and Roger Rulifson, professor of fisheries biology at East Carolina University.


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