Plans are under way to raise 50,000 juvenile winter flounder in Vineyard waters next year. The work on the two-year $308,000 National Sea Grant project has already begun but the biggest hurdle won’t happen for another year.
For the last two days, Elizabeth A. Fairchild, the lead scientist, a professor at the University of New Hampshire, made the rounds on the Island to meet with those involved in the project. She met with a team of nearly a dozen citizen scientists Wednesday night for a soup dinner at the Chilmark Community Center. Yesterday morning and afternoon she looked at prospective shellfish hatcheries and shellfish nursery facilities from Aquinnah to Chappaquiddick as possible candidate sites for the project. Last night, she gave a talk at the Chilmark Public Library.
The two year ambitious project to raise baby winter flounder comes at a time when the fish are in crisis. Winter flounder are scarce, when years ago they were so abundant as to be easily found in every Island coastal pond and out in the sounds.
Despite years of strict regulatory restrictions on the harvesting of the flounder and despite efforts to prohibit the dredging of coastal ponds during their spawning season, there is little change. Part of the reason for the decline, scientists believe, is that the issue goes beyond overfishing and includes the degradation of inshore habitat where the fish come to spawn in early spring and spend much of their juvenile life. Fortunately, the Vineyard’s two ponds are considered pristine enough for the project.
The winter flounder restoration project centers around finding new ways to repopulate these waters with the fish by collecting a small number of adults and having them spawn in hatcheries, then raising the juvenile fish for five months before releasing them in the two ponds. With the right equipment, the right facility, Ms. Fairchild believes in a year from now they can spawn and raise 50,000 fish.
The first year involves studying the habitat of the two ponds. It is essential in the first part to understand the pond where these little fish will be released. Ms. Fairchild is considered the region’s top authority on raising winter flounder in hatcheries. She has studied the fish for nine years and successfully raised thousands of juvenile fish. The Vineyard project could by scale be the largest she has done in one specific area. She was accompanied on her tour by Nate Rennels, a science technician with the university. Mr. Rennels has experience in working on the necessary infrastructure.
Two nights ago, Ms. Fairchild and Mr. Rennels had dinner with more than 20 Vineyarders involved in the project. The participants spanned from shellfish constables in Chilmark and Tisbury to a retired biology teacher. It was attended by Mark London, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, Rick Karney director of the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group and others. She told the gathering that the project is an ambitious and labor intensive science project and she praised their efforts thus far.
Ms. Fairchild said raising 50,000 juvenile fish is not a significant number when thinking about a restoration of the resource and that in Japan, hatcheries populate the waters with 25 million flounder a year to keep their harvestable stock population up. She said this project is about finding an economic method that works best. She hopes that in the years ahead other communities might take steps to contribute to the recovery modeled after the Vineyard project.
The project began last November. The crew of volunteers took a course in Durham, N.H. on how to collect data and they’ve been going out into the ponds ever since. Participants include staff of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) natural resource department. They’ve collected water samples and bottom samples. They’ve dragged nets across the two ponds to inventory the animals in the pond.
The first year of the study is about understanding the biology of the two ponds: Menemsha Pond and Lagoon Pond, Ms. Fairchild said. The intent is to get an understanding of the biology of the ponds, where winter flounder reside. They want to evaluate the food sources and the predators. So far, in a preliminary look at the data, Ms. Fairchild said the ponds are coming up rich with food sources. Students back at the college have been evaluating the samples with microscopes. She predicted that with the warming of the season, the animals found in the sampling will grow significantly.
Once a hatchery is selected, and there may be more than one, it will be retrofitted for raising fish beginning late next winter. Ms. Fairchild said the spawning of the fish starts by catching adult male and females in these waters, then having them spawn naturally in the hatchery around March. The plan will be to raise the fish to about the size of a Pringle potato chip. It takes about five months.
Fish naturally spawn from March to April, so the raising of the fish will take place through the summer. The fish will be fed as they grow and will be released late in the summer.
Unique to winter flounder is their habit of always returning to the same place where they were spawned. It takes about three years for winter flounder to reach sexual maturity. Ms. Fairchild said the fish tend to hang around in the estuaries where they were born for the first two years. Once fully mature, they go out to sea. But they will come back as adults to spawn in the same ponds where they were spawned. The big hope is that the fish that are spawned next year will come back and be counted. The true success of the spawning project could be measured years after the research project is completed.
Ms. Fairchild spoke about the effort to tag each of the fish that come from the hatchery. She passed around samples of tiny tags that get inserted on the fish.
While some of the grants available to extending the project may have dried up in this fiscally tight economic climate, Ms. Fairchild told the gathering that she is still hopeful for its future. Initially this two year project was written to include a Long Island site; the project has now been reduced to just the Vineyard site.
Chilmark selectman Warren Doty is one of the principal partners in the project. Mr. Doty, chairman of the Martha’s Vineyard/Dukes County Fishermens’ Association, has been working for several years with others to try and revitalize the fishing community at Menemsha. Mr. Doty said that the release of 50,000 small winter flounder into local waters is a huge step toward cultivating a fishing resource and to restoring the fish into local waters. Those fish will grow, and then, as adults, hopefully return to spawn again.