Close to 5,000 tagged juvenile winter flounder will be released this week into Nashaquitsa Pond, following a two-year federally-funded study. Last week, crews involved in the project at the Wampanoag tribe’s hatchery overlooking Menemsha Pond spent two days tagging the fish they had raised in the hatchery since last spring. Each fish measured less than two inches in length.

Winter flounder are a severely troubled local fish. Despite extreme measures to cut overfishing, their numbers continue to decline. The project to raise the animals in captivity springs from the view that jump-starting the fishery will require the use of fish hatcheries. Winter flounder spawn in coastal waters, but they spend a good part of their adult lives in the open ocean. Scientists are concerned that deteriorating water quality and warming water temperatures have contributed to declining stocks, especially in this area.

Winter flounder
Andrew Jacobs, Nate Reynolds and Elizabeth Fairchild. — Mark Alan Lovewell

Elizabeth Fairchild, the lead scientist, was on the Vineyard last week to assist personally in the tagging. Mrs. Fairchild, a professor at the University of New Hampshire, is a top authority on the raising and releasing of winter flounder. She wrote the $308,000 NOAA Sea Grant in collaboration with the Martha’s Vineyard Dukes County Fishermen’s Association. The two-year project, which included researching inshore flounder habitats in Lagoon Pond and Menemsha Pond, had sought to raise and then release 50,000 juveniles. Raising and releasing so many fish proved beyond reach. She blamed the disparity on the huge learning curve in raising winter flounder in captivity at the Vineyard facility, which was originally built as a shellfish hatchery, not a fish hatchery. “It was everyone’s first year of raising fish,” she said.

Still, the researchers learned a lot about the viability of bringing winter flounder back into the waters of the Vineyard.

Unfortunately, Mrs. Fairchild said, they had sought additional funding for the project to extend it for another year, but funding did not come. “There are many projects seeking funding and less money available,” she said. Mrs. Fairchild said they are looking for other sources to continue the project, hopefully for at least another year.

Without additional funding the project will end in October. Up until that point, the fish will be monitored for a short time after they are released. One key part of the study was to determine where in either Lagoon Pond or Menemsha Pond would be the best place to release these juvenile fish. Clam Point Cove in Nashaquitsa Pond was selected after the scientists concluded that is where the fish will have the highest chance for survival. The cove offers fewer predators and more food.

On Thursday morning, Warren Doty, president of the local fishermen’s association, was also helping. He said the fish have the ability to change color like chameleons. At the hatchery all the fish look sand-colored. Mr. Doty said this will change as they adapt to the color of the bottom, whereever they reside.

Bright yellow and orange tags were inserted into the side of the fish that faces the bottom. Mr. Doty said that having the little tags out of the sight of predators will help their survival. Two different colored tags were used, Mr. Doty said, because they plan to release the fish in two different ways. They want to be able to monitor the success rates of the two techniques over the next several months. The tags, called visible implant elastomer tags, are inserted individually, using a special hand-held air injected device.

The juveniles are expected to spend much of the remaining summer and fall in Menemsha Pond before exiting into the open ocean. It is understood that winter flounder raised in these waters will be genetically tagged and will migrate back here in two or three years as adults to spawn.

If the project does receive additional funding, the plan is to raise another batch of juvenile winter flounder for release next year, along with continuing to monitor the success of those raised this year. The project parallels similar efforts by Mrs. Fairchild at the University of New Hampshire.

Winter flounder were once highly abundant in the waters of the Gulf of Maine down to North Carolina. Recent studies by Mrs. Fairchild and others suggest that the range of the fish is moving northward with warming water temperatures.