June 2012 Archives

Wolffish Adventures

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Starting out as a marine scientist is tough if you've never really been on a boat before. You just don't have much clout. This is my impression at least. So this spring has been my attempt at getting my feet wet (pun intended... a thank you) in the world of "field work".

On my latest outing I was lucky enough to help out some researchers at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI) and University of New Hampshire with the Northeast Wolffish Tagging Project. This project is designed with the aim of better understanding the movements of wolffish in the northwest Atlantic.  For those of you who don't know what a wolffish is, its like a creepy mix between an eel and a fish that can get pretty large (1-2m). They are not aggressive fish (at least to humans) since they mostly consume shellfish and crustaceans, but when you take them out of the water they don't seem to like it very much. They have about as many teeth as a Canadian scientist... hockey player, but the force of their bite could probably put those teeth most of the way through your hand. Since wolffish hide out in holes at the bottom of the ocean, this study had commissioned a groundfish trawler in order to catch and tag as many wolffish as possible.


It was really cool to spend time on a commercial fishing boat and see the daily routine of captain and his two crew members. We were aboard the Lisa Ann II out of Gloucester, MA. We left the dock around 1:00 am and steamed out to Stellwagen bank. After chatting with the captain for a bit, we managed to squeeze about an hour of sleep before the first net-tow started. The boat was equipped with two nets. While the first tow was finishing and the net was pulled up onto the deck, the second net was sent out for another tow.  

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Each tow took about an hour so it was possible to nap here and there between tows. When the nets were brought up, the crewmates would release the net and drop all the fish on the deck. 

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If there were any wolffish they would carry them over to us and place them in a holding tank with seawater. We would wrestle the fish into baskets to weigh them, and then wrestle them onto the measuring board to measure their length. After that we would use two dart tags to tag the fish, record the number on the tags, and then release the fish back into the water; all of this done while trying not to lose a finger.

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We caught nineteen wolffish from four tows. Not exactly the best outing for the project, but better than nothing (zero was the count on multiple trips last year). For more information on the project and to see some really cool pictures check out www.wolffishtagging.org.


The trip gave me a little bit of insight into the lives of groundfish fishermen. They work incredibly hard and during the strangest hours. It is a much different lifestyle than ours in the ecosystem modeling lab.

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