First day of my internship, up at the crack of dawn, I am awed by the sun's rays rising from Matagorda Bay's calm waters!
As we pull up to the first net of the day I can see something caught at the end of the net that is causing a great deal of commotion. Could it be a shark, a 25-pound red drum, or maybe a sting ray? In due time I knew I would get the opportunity to wrangle a large creature from the net.
This excitement reminds me of my first day of school. But this is different. I can't wait to get dirty. I get to wrangle in a fish-loaded gill net during which I have a high chance of getting poked, stabbed, and downright grungy. My first three weeks of my internship includes the last 3 weeks of the 10 week spring gill net sampling conducted by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) Coastal Fisheries Division staff in all eight coastal bay systems.
Every bay team builds (and repairs) its own nets to exactly 600 feet in length. Four 150-foot panels, each of a different mesh size, are used in order capture different sizes as well as different species of fishes. The meshes range from 1.5-inch square holes to 3-inch square holes. The standardization in nets allows for comparison of data among bays. The average catch rates, in number of fish per hour, can also be developed to look at coastwide trends. The fall net season is identical to the spring season: 3 to 5 nets are set each week perpendicular to shore within the hour before sunset and picked up within three hours after sunrise the next morning. All organisms are identified, counted and measured. Forty five sets are made in each bay system each season. The over 30 years that the biologists have been collecting these data in this way give them a proxy view of the seasonal trends in relative abundance of fishes in the bays.
As we approach the net, the technicians from the Palacios Field Station begin their routine activities associated with each gill net pickup. Data sheets were readied. Pickup time was recorded. Water depth was measured. Because of my college classes and my field experience, I used the electronic probe instrument that measures water temperature, salinity, and dissolved oxygen. Of course, water quality and habitat are extremely important factors in fish abundance.
During retrieval of the first net I got to handle red drum, black drum, sheepshead, hardhead catfish, gafftopsail catfish, alligator gar, southern stingray, cownose ray and two different shark species. Not bad for a rookie intern net wrangler on her first day of internship! The day ended at the office processing samples, cleaning gear, and preparing for the nest day's sampling. After the fourteen hour day, my eyes closed before my head hit the pillow.
During my second week of gill nets, one of my greatest moments in life was being able to hold a 4.5-foot bull shark. It makes me want to become a shark researcher. Also, I was able to handle Florida pompano, file fish, and tripletail; all three species I had never heard of prior to my internship. The remainder of my internship I was also able to do regular weekly samples with trawls, bag seines, and oyster dredges. These gears are used because of their specific designs and species they capture. As with the gill nets, long running trend data can be prepared for each species collected by each gear type.
Without the great course work that I have received at Texas A&M University at Galveston, the support of the Coastal Conservation Association, the cooperation of TPWD, I would not have had the opportunity to experience things I would never have gotten to do on my own. I have gained a great deal of appreciation and understanding how the marine fish population data are obtained and the importance of monitoring, understanding, and managing the marine resources.
My summer could not have been better, spending time on a boat with a great fisheries team, monitoring the living marine resources and occasionally watching a pod of mother bottled nose dolphins and their calves gracefully swim by.