Go behind the curtains with DNR fish sampling

cdad@hiltonheadisland.netAugust 22, 2012 

When I got a call from Bill Roumillat, head biologist at the state Department of Natural Resources, asking me if I wanted to spend the day with him and his team as they did fish sampling, I jumped at the chance.

I had done this before with Bill, and even though my schedule was rather busy, I put this mission above all my prior commitments because these biologists are directly responsible for the phenomenal fishing enjoyed by each of us who harvests seafood from our waters. The way I see it, they are first line of defense against environmental changes that a layman like myself would never see until it was way too late.

I can assure you that being a marine biologist isn't about wealth; it's more a labor of love, especially with all the state and federal funding cutbacks. These DNR employees spend their whole lives doing research that might or might not bring them recognition, but for the all of us who reap the benefits of their research, their work is vital to keep our waters healthy and productive.

I guess it would help you to know exactly what fish sampling is and how it is done. Hauling two specially built boats from DNR's headquarters in Charleston, local resident Jimmy McIntire and I met the biologists at the Trask Landing at the end of Sawmill Creek Road. The boats they use have the outboard engine in the middle so they can go in extremely shallow water. In a compartment on the stern of each boat, they have 1,000-foot-long trammel nets that are similar to gill nets, but because they are two nets with different sized mesh sandwiched together, the fish can be released uninjured.

Now comes the scary part, especially if you have never been on one of these trips before.

Picking random areas, the biologists drop a lead weight onto the shoreline and then, like Mario Andretti at the wheel, one person puts the pedal to the metal and parallels the shoreline about 20 yards from its banks and, as the net feeds out the back, another person signals when the end of the net is coming up. It's at this point that the pilot will go flying straight toward the shoreline, where another lead weight is thrown onshore, effectively trapping any fish along the length of the net.

I need to tell you that the whole time the net is being dropped, whoever is driving the boat is standing up and holding the outboard's tiller. With no steering wheel, you are constantly hitting oyster mounds and other obstructions, but speed is vital to trapping the fish, so there is no slowing down. For the life of me, I don't see how someone is not thrown out of the boat.

Anyhow, once the trammel net is set, the engine is raised enough to go inside the net. This is when the fun begins, especially for a child like myself. We use long paddles and blocks of wood. The paddles are slapped on the water and the blocks of wood are pounded on the boat, scaring the fish toward the net. With my bad back, I chose the blocks of wood and started beating out James Brown's greatest hits, much to the amusement of the biologists on board.

Starting at one end, the net is pulled in and every species of fish is measured. Climate and water data are recorded. With some fish, such as redfish, small fin clips are taken for DNA purposes. With these samples, they can tell where the fish came from and using past data, can tell if the fish are wild or if they came from the thousands of redfish bred and released at Waddell Mariculture Center.

The one thing that struck me this time was just how into their work Bill and his biologists are. My simplest comments about things I have observed while out on the water resulted in genuine interest, along with a detailed replies from Bill. Even after many years of doing this, he seems as excited as someone just getting started in the field of marine biology. Imagine how different this world would be if every person in every occupation went into work with such passion, especially those who have had the same job for decades.

If only...

So what did we catch? Redfish, trout, flounder, jack crevelle, puffer fish, croakers, spots and a fair amount of bonnet head sharks, mostly pregnant females, and a hodge-podge of other critters.

As a side note, somewhat selfishly, I also found some new drops that I can't wait to try out. I beg all of you who fish, shrimp, crab or just ponder our pristine waters to support the efforts of DNR and the Waddell Mariculture Center in whatever ways you can. The work they do is behind the curtains, but without their tireless enthusiasm, our fisheries and our waters would suffer the fate of so many places up and down the Eastern seaboard.

God does not subtract from the allotted span of a man's life the hours spent in fishing. Columnist Collins Doughtie, a graphic designer by trade and fishing guide by choice, sure hopes that's true.

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