Sentinel Survey Intrigues Local Fishermen

The last time anyone set a gillnet for groundfish out of Stonington, MCCF’s Fisheries Scientist Pat Shepard was in kindergarten. He recalls going on a trip with Captain Brent Oliver in the early 90’s. He was too little to be out on deck while they were fishing so he stayed in the wheelhouse and took pictures with one of those disposable cameras. At one point, Brent opened up the wheelhouse door and tossed in a monkfish – an ugly brownish colored bottom dweller with football-shaped mouth containing multiple sets of nasty looking razor sharp teeth. Pat thought the fish was going to eat him.

Last month, Pat (who’s now 31) and Brent (we won’t say), started hanging gillnets in the shop adjacent to our office on 13 Atlantic Ave. A buzz of fishermen have been helping us get set up for a validation study to accompany this year’s Eastern Gulf of Maine Sentinel Survey – our flagship collaborative research program for Atlantic cod. Why gillnets? We have suspected for some time now that small populations of young cod do exist on and around nursery habitats in eastern Maine. But the gear we typically deploy on our survey – longlines and jigs – may be missing them for multiple reasons. We know from previous studies that juvenile cod aren’t yet feeding on herring – and they won’t until they reach reproductive maturity. Our longlines are baited with herring and squid – a recipe that juvenile cod simply may not be interested in yet. It’s kind of like offering up hot peppers and exotic cheese to a toddler who knows the freezer is full of chicken nuggets and hot dogs.

This suspicion was confirmed – quite by accident – late last summer with Captain Bobby Jones and his brother Billy on the F/V High Hopes. After two unsuccessful tub trawl sets on an old Bounty Hunter hot spot, Pat put a GoPro camera in the water to catch some footage of a swarm of mackerel boiling off the top of a shoal. To everyone’s surprise (except perhaps Bobby), the bottom of the ocean was teeming with juvenile cod. The team immediately went to work designing a gillnet that would capture some of this missing data. In May, Pat and charge of old netters as well as younger guys who wanted to learn, built 6 research nets consisting of 3 different mesh size panels for sampling various size classes of fish. The nets will be deployed from June through October either side by side with hook gear or after the hooks have soaked. Data from the various gear types will be compared and analyzed by partners at the University of Maine and the team will continue the ongoing work of improving the survey platform.

Figuring out how to fish a gillnet from a dedicated lobster boat has taken some creative thinking – and the test deployment on the F/V Savanna Says with Captain Matt Trundy earlier this week went pretty smoothly. Of course, there are some improvements to be made, but that’s a constant in fishing. Stay tuned for more updates as the sampling season progresses.

We’d like to thank local fishermen for helping build nets, donating gear and offering helpful advice along the way. The list is long: Brent Oliver, John Williams, Scott McGuire, Matt Trundy, Matt Perez, Justin Boyce, Robbie Gray, John Higgins, and Ronnie Trundy.