Early Tuesday, as the sun was just rising, Capt. Todd Recicar with the NOAA cruised 25 miles off the Georgia Coast, ending his hour long trip by anchoring his boat in the middle of the dark blue Atlantic.
The cloudy patch of ocean where Recicar’s cruiser bobbed didn’t seem any different from the expansive waters surrounding it.
Today, however, another boat, a large, retired Navy ship, the Nancy Foster, floats not too far away and the boats, together, mark the significance of what lies just 60 feet beneath the surface. The two boats are over Gray’s Reef Marine Sanctuary, currently, an isolated hotbed of marine research.
The Nancy Foster, now a research vessel, is traveling the East Coast, offering precious deep sea time to a community of researchers. During the two weeks it’s stationed at Gray’s Reef, it was home to about 15 scientists, separated into specific crews and each with their own project and objective.
The groups are conducting five main research projects, one of which is a fish tagging and tracking project that Recicar and his crew of well-seasoned fisherman, are helping with their skills.
The crew included the captain, his dad, Tom Recicar, a helper fisherman, Spud Woodward, assistant director of Coastal Resource Division of the DNR, Chad Meckley, vessels operations coordinator for Gray’s Reef, Devin Dumont, curator at the University of Georgia Marine Extension Service aquarium, and Donna McDowell, marine technician with the DNR. Their objective: to catch and tag as many grouper and red snapper as possible. Not exactly an easy feat considering the variety of species attracted to the reef.
“I think there are about 130 species,” the NOAA’s Gail Krueger said.
McDowell said fishing for only a few species can be challenging, but as a life-long fisherman she’s picked up a few tips for the crew.
“Have patience,” she said laughing. “Have good bait — got to have good live bait — good gear and fish on the bottom.”
It was good advice as after a day of fishing the crew caught a seven-foot shark, a large mackerel and several sea bass. They didn’t get any of the targeted species until around 3:30. In a burst of excitement, Dumont caught a 20-inch gag grouper and Tom Recicar caught a red snapper also measuring 20 inches.
After they caught the fish, they’d tag and vent it.
“When fish are brought up from depths their swim blatters inflate and it causes a lot of stress on the fish. So I’m here to help vent the fish with a hypodermic needle,” Dumont said.
He helped with a variety of fish husbandry tasks.
Then, they turned the fish over to other researchers on the Nancy Foster, where the fish were monitored for a short time and then put back into the sea so the researchers can track their behavior, collecting data on migratory patterns, which, according to the crewmembers, are vital to understanding the delicate balance of life on the reef.
After a long day in the sun, the crew felt successful as they were able to add two more fish to the project. Tuesday was the last day of fishing, bringing the project’s second year to a close. They’re now tracking about 20 fish, constantly recording data.
The tagging project is only one of five research projects conducted off the Nancy Foster at Gray’s Reef. Look for articles on the other projects in the next few editions of the Courier.