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Fish Stories by Mail

Bill Knapp

Bill Knapp holds a citation-sized speckled trout, which he immediately tagged and released. Photo © Bill Knapp.

Virginia Marine Resource Bulletin
Volume 40, Number 1, Fall/Winter 2008
By Phil Marsosudiro

Bill Knapp has heard a lot of fish stories, but this one beat them all. Last fall he got news that a black sea bass that he’d caught in 2006 at Lynnhaven Inlet Bridge had spent the following year growing a half inch and swimming 500 miles to Jones Inlet, New York, before being caught by another angler.

Every day, Knapp makes an expectant trip to his mailbox in Virginia Beach. He’s looking for news about “his” fish—the ones he’s caught, tagged, logged, and released over the last four years. On a typical news day, he might read that a triggerfish he caught in May grew a quarter of an inch before it got picked up by another angler in June. On other days, there’s no fish report, and he’ll toss his pile of regular mail—magazines, bills, and anything else—on the table to look at later. They’re just not that important, and meanwhile, he’s got a day’s worth of fishing to log: a dozen or so fish newly tagged or recaptured and ready to go into the data files at the Virginia Game Fish Tagging Program.

Last year, Knapp captured and tagged more than 650 fish. As far as he’s concerned, these are his fish from now on, and he’ll want to know what happens to them. And thanks to the Game Fish Tagging Program, he will. In 2007, 108 fish Knapp had tagged, that year or in previous years, were caught and reported by other anglers—or by Knapp himself.

Virginia Game Fish Tagging Program
The dedication of anglers like Knapp makes the tagging program a serious force in fisheries conservation. Since the program’s start in 1995, its citizen scientists have caught, tagged, and logged more than 140,000 fish, with nearly 14,000 of those fish recaptured and reported at least once.

Jon Lucy is the program’s co-administrator and co-founder at Virginia Sea Grant and VIMS. According to Lucy, “Data from this program are of direct interest to anglers and are providing new information about fish movement and habitat use patterns.”

Lucy recalls that when the Virginia Marine Resources Commission and VIMS created the program, “There were no guarantees that there would be enough support from the fishing public. We knew that success would depend on the avidity and hard work of experienced anglers. But we had no idea just how enthusiastic some of these people would prove to be.”

What Drives the Dedication?
Nearly two hundred anglers are actively tagging fish for the program each year. Many of these volunteers devote hundreds of hours per year to the program, painstakingly measuring and recording their catches with the care that’s required for good science. Why are they so dedicated? According to Lucy, one big reason is that they feel the program belongs to them just as much as it belongs to the Commonwealth.

Knapp joined the program four years ago when he noticed that the unregulated sheepshead fishery that he and his friends had been enjoying for years was suddenly taking a hit from overzealous new anglers. “Until three or four years ago, I was consistently catching ten-pound sheepshead, on average,” says Knapp. “But then the cat got out of the bag, and we started seeing boats coming through with twenty or thirty world-class sheepshead in their coolers, and the population started shrinking quickly.” When Knapp asked Virginia officials why there weren’t any protective regulations for sheepshead, they told him, “Well, we don’t yet know enough about them.” In the course of these conversations, Knapp also learned about the tagging program and its recent inclusion of the sheepshead as a target species, so he signed on.

“Eventually we got some sheepshead rules, and, hopefully, they won’t be too little too late,” says Knapp. “I know my data assisted,” he says, “but even more it was the lobbying, as friends and I went to more of these meetings, and as we stood up and said ‘we’ve got to do something.’ Commercial guys said we don’t know enough about the sheepshead and whether the population could sustain an open fishery. But we supported our lobbying with tagging data and showed regulators how serious we were. That opened their eyes and got them to move.”

Putting the Data to Work
Knapp also happens to be the state’s leading tautog tagger, and his data are being used in the current Atlantic Coast debate about that fishery. “The federal government is setting new rules as a result of tautog overfishing in the north, from New York to Rhode Island. But we know we have a localized species, because out of more than 14,000 tautog tagged, only two have been captured outside of our waters,” says Knapp.

Lucy explains, “Putting tighter limits on tautog in Virginia won’t do anything to help overfishing in northern waters where the problems are. Their fish aren’t the same as our fish.”

Map of tagged speckled trout distribution.

Interstate travel of speckled trout, 2004–2007. Twenty-eight Virginia-tagged fish traveled to North Carolina.

In contrast to the tautog fisheries, the program has identified some fisheries that are clearly shared across state lines, and that, therefore, need a cooperative management plan. “Our data show that approximately 15% of speckled trout tagged in Virginia waters were recaptured in North Carolina waters,” says Lucy. “Because of our hard data on trout migration back and forth between our waters, North Carolina is starting a tagging program for this important species and will ultimately include Virginia in its fishery management plan for trout.”

Like Knapp, York County tagger Ed Shepherd also appreciates how his efforts support science, recreation, and conservation in Virginia. Now retired from the Air Force, Shepherd spends four or five hours a day, seven days a week, fishing, tagging, logging data, and telling others about the program. He’s held the program’s tagging record for the last several years, logging more than 4,300 fish in 2007. But as Shepherd will be the first to say, the record isn’t what’s important. “I’m interested in fish, and how they survive, and where they travel to. And I like making a difference.”

Shepherd notes that people used to argue that catch-and-release regulations weren’t legitimate because fish wouldn’t survive after handling, especially if they were injured during the catch. “We’ve proven that false time and time again. Many times I’ll land a flounder with its guts up in his throat, pulled there by my fishing hook. Following Virginia’s catch-and-release guidance, I’ll undo the hook, push the guts down with my pliers’ handle, and let him go. Months later, I’ll see in the program reports that the same fish got caught again. I’ve always thought that flounder could go to the bottom and just sit there and convalesce.” Now he’s proven it’s true.

Fisheries for the Future
Virginia taggers are citizens-scientists who want to preserve fisheries not only for themselves, but also for future generations. Knapp, a father in his early 30s, says, “I’ve been fishing in the Bay area since I was five years old. I’ve got a four-year-old boy who I want to have the same opportunities I had when my father started taking me fishing.”

Shepherd shares the same connection with kids when he fishes from his favorite piers on the York River. “I explain what I’m doing and why, and the kids seem to appreciate this. If a kid is nearby when I need to tag a fish, I’ll put the gun in their hands and they pull the trigger. Some kids have told me, ‘I wanna be a marine biologist when I grow up!’ Well I’m not a marine biologist, but I’m glad to help them on their way.”

The biologists who founded the program in 1995 certainly hoped their one-year experiment would grow into a long-term resource for fisheries science and management. Thirteen years later, they might be surprised to realize that their program has grown into a fine promoter of Virginia citizenship, as anglers like Shepherd get to enjoy their days fishing in public waters while they also contribute to the Commonwealth as scientists, teachers, and conservationists. And even, sometimes, as the public conscience. As Shepherd observes, “When the taggers are out, people say, ‘well, since you’re here, I guess I have to throw these undersized ones back in.’ We don’t tell them otherwise.”

Recapture rates of tagged flounder.

Records for flounder tagged at Gloucester Point fishing pier in 2007 and recaptured multiple times, demonstrating that many fish survive the catch-and-release process.