Friday, December 29, 2006

Fish Report 12/29/06

Fish Report 12/29/06
Not Toggin Just Yet,
Artificial Reef Building - And Happy New Year! 
Hi All,
The weather isn't going to be fit to go on our New Year's tog trip. Rats! Had 3 years running; it was bound to happen. No worries, when the weather looks good we'll go. Promise!
I've spent a lot of time writing about our natural reefs these last months. Exposed rock on the ocean floor forms reef. Period. Whether it is sandstone exposed by current or a boulder pile dropped by a melting iceberg 10's of thousands of years ago; so long as it is exposed, all that form our regions reef ecology will grow there. 
Artificial reef construction is putting something on the bottom that is similar to rock and letting natural reef grow. It's really that simple. Concrete pipe, steel barges and boats - a huge variety of material can stimulate the growth of a reef.
If a rock gets scraped clean of growth - it's a rock. When a load of concrete settles to the bottom - it's a load of concrete on the bottom. Over time though, as the mussels, corals and other critters attach and colonize ~ then it becomes reef.
What can the fish know of it?
If I'm right, if ~minus fishing pressure~ the amount of seafloor habitat controls the populations of many fish; either limiting their numbers when reduced or allowing population expansion when increased, then artificial reefs are something we need to keep building.
Everything in my experience says this is so.
Since 1989 every piece of artificial reef that has been placed offshore of Ocean City, MD. has developed into productive seafloor. Every one.
Pretty amazing when you think about it.
It wasn't all gravy; back in the mid/late 70's some thought that a solution had been found to the eyesore and mosquito problem created by mountains of used tires. They banded the tires, cut slots to release air and then weighted the ends before placing these units. The bands and shackles rusted out, the units broke open and, as my daughter and I saw this past Thanksgiving, the loose tires are still washing ashore. She saved a piece of coral from it...
For a long time those tires killed any thought of reef construction off this coast.
Reef units of the 1960s are still producing. There weren't many and we're not even allowed to use the material anymore, but those wooden menhaden purse seiners on the Bass Grounds Reef get fished daily in the summer.
Artificial reef construction has received a lot more study in recent decades. Spin a globe and stop it with your finger - if you're near an ocean it's likely you can find studies conducted in that region. In Japan, where there is 'ownership' of seafloor, you can borrow money to build artificial reef based on expected production.
We're a long way from there. In fact, there are some who argue constructing reef serves only to concentrate fish. Viewed with a short timeline this is true. The first piece of reef that settles on a permitted site will, sometimes within days~even hours, start to attract fish. However, as more materials are added to the area and growths such as coral mature on the reef, the true function of a reef ecology is recognizable. One 'set' on a reef site will accomplish little. It's the building of reef 'complexes' that has positive effect.
I'll soon have my 400th tag return. Most of the fish tagged were cbass and tog. The clearest, most precise data that has developed from these returns is that these fish are homebodies. Sea bass do migrate in winter, but then, far more often than not, they return to the same reef where they were tagged. A fellow caught a double header of tagged sea bass. Both fish had been tagged on the exact same spot a year earlier. This particular example occurred on natural reef ~ but there's a large shipwreck less than a mile away. 
If artificial reef served only to concentrate fish for harvest then these two fish should have been caught on the wreck. And, given the increasing amount of artificial reef and fishing pressure on them, there should be precious few cbass left in the sea.
Instead, once the growths get going and the initial settlement of fish occurs, artificial reef is indistinguishable from natural reef as to production.
Moreover, engineering the habitat that we build makes it possible to build reef that is far more productive than our naturally occurring rocky areas.
Because fish use the reefs to feed, grow to maturity, avoid predation and spawn on; and because habitat fidelity is an unmistakable trend seen in tag returns, it must be said that artificial reefs produce ~ that reef building is a tool for rebuilding our fisheries.
Now, if we just had a little money...
Maryland's coastal reef building was taken over by a small -really small- non-profit, the Ocean City Reef Foundation, back in '97.( ) Recently, MDDNR's Marty Gary has begun to assist at the State and Federal levels and we're grateful for the help.
It's curious to me. If the oyster was the keystone species in the Chesapeake Bay, then why isn't Maryland on the cutting edge of reef development?
We should be able to replicate a natural oyster bar's production - better it even. Biofiltering (animals cleaning the water) isn't accomplished solely by oysters - there plenty of other critters that can get the waters a little cleaner while oysters colonize new reef.
Fortunately, it seems as though there is a new and greater interest in reef building. Perhaps Maryland will, one day, be among the leaders in reef technology.
I hope so.
Rebuilding fisheries from the bottom up isn't such a bad strategy...
Have a Great New Year!
Capt. Monty Hawkins
Party Boat "Morning Star"
Reservations 410 520 2076

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