A Summer Well Spent as the Lower Laguna Madre CCA Intern

Abigail Lashbrook, Brownsville Field Station
A Summer Well Spent as the Lower Laguna Madre CCA Intern
Working to collect a bag seine sample in the Arroyo
One does not expect to come face to face with a 7 ft. bull shark (Carcharinus leucas) at 7:30 am but there he was, a dark fin tip ominously emerging from below the surface near the white float on the gill net. As a summer intern for Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Coastal Fisheries Division in Brownsville, Texas, I anticipated coming across a few strange organisms. Catching a large and angry bull shark in 4 ft of water at a well-known wading spot, however, was a little more than I had bargained for. Henry Gonzalez and Melinda Dunks, even as experienced technicians, were still a bit hesitant to bring the thrashing shark aboard. As we discussed the safest way to measure and record the giant, a huge tail struck the bow of the boat and sent up a wall of water. A loud ripping sound quickly followed. The bull shark had grown restless and torn his way out of the 4 in. mesh section of the 600 ft gill net. All we were left with was a gaping hole to repair once we returned to the station.

As we recorded the rest of our catch (mainly red drum, spotted seatrout, and hardheads) I thought about how I often take our unique coastal ecosystem for granted. Just when you think you understand the lower Laguna Madre, a shark reminds you that there are surprises still swimming out there. Fortunately, we did not encounter any other unexpected sea creatures in the rest of our pick ups that day. We finished collecting the rest of our gill nets, double checked our water samples, and safely stowed all the gear and equipment. As we headed back to the boat ramp I took time to enjoy the bright, clear morning sky and calm seas. A job really could not get much better than this.

Thanks to an avid sportsman as a father, I've grown accustomed to rising and being ready to work before the sunrise, which is a desirable characteristic for the type of work TPWD entails. Although not all of our spring gill nets contained unusual species like the bull shark, all of the nets (averaging
3-5 nets a week for ten weeks straight) had to be collected no later than an hour after sunrise, meaning work days started at 5:30 am. Running perpendicular to the shoreline, our 600 ft nets collected an accurate representation of the diversity and abundance of species in the area.

Besides gill nets, our research consisted of several other sampling procedures divided into two categories. Harvest sampling is comprised of creel surveys, which are done by interviewing anglers to determine fishing pressures at local boat ramps and identify which species of fish are targeted in the lower Laguna Madre. The other category, resource sampling, required hands-on field work utilizing bay and gulf trawls, bag seines, and gill nets. I learned that both types of sampling are crucial to understanding and managing an ecosystem. Essentially, creel surveys allow TPWD biologists to estimate what is being removed from the bay and gulf by recreational fisherman. Resource sampling helps determine how marine species are subsisting and what is available for harvest. Our research, both creel surveys and resource sampling, is double checked for accuracy and before being entered in the coastwide data base.
The combined data helps determine fishing regulations in order to maintain a balanced environment along the Texas coastline.

Throughout the summer I looked forward to every day's experiences whether it was the thrill of feeling the sun on my shoulders as Melinda and I pulled bag seines along shorelines, or learning scientific names from John as we recorded samples in the lab. Everyday was a new opportunity to learn from the crew in Brownsville and I was never turned down when I had a question. I learned the value of teamwork and patience when working aboard a vessel. More importantly, I realized the value of TPWD's work. I thought it would be a fun experience to work outside for a summer, but as I return to the fall semester at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi my knowledge takes on a deeper meaning. Growing up in the Rio Grande Valley, I have always utilized the pristine coastal resources without a second thought to conserving our beautiful bay system. After my internship however, I feel that the research and sampling I helped with contributed to preserving our unique ecosystem for the enjoyment and enrichment of future generations of outdoorsman, or outdoorswomen in some cases.