Adventure & Finally Retirement: Part III

Jim Dailey

Helping build present day Coastal Fisheries sampling methods.

The program we followed back there in the late 1960's wasn't nearly as formal as things are today. We sometimes had opportunity to work on own projects, things that we thought were important. Bob Calura and I developed what we called our Special Projects and we had several. We went into the Chocolate Bay area, Powderhorn Lake and the Upper Lavaca system. These were areas that weren't included in our other programs and we went in there to learn more about those areas and we wrote them up and published our findings to the department. That work proved valuable on down the line when those areas fell into the normal sampling schemes.

We also had the Alcoa mercury deal and we had to go in and gather data and send it to the feds. We didn't understand yet the extent of the mercury contamination that had occurred there. We picked up a lot of crabs, shrimp, oysters and various species of fish. It seemed to be in the crabs the worst, but you could find it all throughout the food chain. That whole area right there became an EPA Super Fund site and a lot of our effort set the groundwork for it and it is still going on. There are still some areas up there that remain closed to this day because mercury never goes away. We did a lot of work there and it was fortunate that Alcoa was there to help foot the bill. It's a lot different you know when some chemical company closes down and then 30 or 40 years later you have to go back and try to figure out what happened, how long they polluted, what chemicals they released and all the records are gone. You know without that company still there the taxpayers foot the whole bill and it's a lot more work. Alcoa wasn't too cooperative at first but they eventually gave up their stalling tactics and they pitched in and helped us and helped fund a lot of it. Probably the biggest thing was getting them to change their processes to stop the pollution from going into the bay.

While we doing all that work, the storm that eventually became known as the Redfish Wars was beginning to brew. It brought a monumental task for the guys in TPWD because the first part of the job was to come up with a good assessment of the populations to prove we even had a problem. Everybody knew we had a problem but we couldn't prove it. Up until that time nobody had done much in that area so they didn't have a lot to go on. Before we could go anywhere we had to come up with a sampling plan and get some data together. Everybody was working on it coastwide and things really happened quick. The early 70's were the true formative years for Coastal Fisheries as we know it now and the sampling regimes they are using out there today were formulated through our efforts to understand that redfish problem.

The Department hired two individuals to come in and help us. Gary Matlack and Jim Weaver came in and these guys were really sharp. Weaver had his PhD and Matlack didn't have his yet, but they were very intelligent individuals. Weaver eventually went to work for the feds and Matlack did too, but Matlack stayed a great number of years before he moved on and he was brilliant. They got us to try a great number of things and we learned a lot from those guys.

We were trying to do our redfish population sampling work with trammel nets like I told you earlier, but nobody really knew how efficient a trammel net was and that makes it hard to convince somebody that you've got good data. When we first started we used to think that every time we put a net in the water every fish was dead and gone when we pulled it out. But we later learned that just wasn't true. We soon learned that the trammel net is an active fishing device and the success rate depends on how well you set them and how well you strike them. There is just an awful lot of human effort required and if you didn't do it the same way every time, well your data isn't any good.

Striking the net means making noise to drive the fish into it and we tried various methods. We needed to know how effective that trammel net was before we could make accurate statements about fish populations so we began placing a block net around the trammel net. The block net we used was actually pogie netting off the menhaden seining boats that they were getting rid of. We'd place that block net around our trammel net to hold anything the trammel net hadn't caught and then we'd Rotenone the area to kill any that we'd missed. That's when we really began to understand how inefficient those trammel nets could be.

We tried to come up with ratings so that when we counted what we had in the trammel net we could then predict how many fish total had been in the space the net occupied. I think we decided the trammel net was something like 35% effective on trout above the size our webbing could catch and about 40% on redfish. We put a lot of work into learning to catch fish with the darn things and it was finally decided that what we were doing wasn't good enough and that's when they switched over to gill nets.

Now Rotenone was very common back then and some people believed it was all we needed. Rotenone is a commercial pesticide and it is very deadly to fish in the right concentration. It was widely used at one time and still is in freshwater fisheries management to kill out lakes that held undesirable species so they could stock back the ones they wanted and we tried it down here in the saltwater. We began putting the Rotenone in coves and so forth but it wasn't a good survey method at all. You either used too little and it didn't have the right effect or you used too much or maybe the current pulled it the wrong way and you killed everything way down the shoreline. The other problem you get with Rotenone is it kills everything. You're interested in some species and not others and that stuff kills them all. It was a fiasco and I was glad when we quit using it.

Join us again next month as Jim tells us how they started the redfish hatcheries program to help build the fisheries we enjoy today.