By Janet Krenn
Aboard the same boat his father used before him, George Trice has been a commercial waterman targeting striped bass in the James River for more than 20 years. Over that time, he has weathered more than a few a changes in the health and management of the fishery, but this April a new concern set in: Atlantic sturgeon, a fish that can get caught accidentally in striped bass nets, made the endangered species list.
“I don’t know how it will affect the fishery,” Trice says. “I hope it doesn’t.” But Trice has been doing more than hoping. He’s finishing up his second year of trials on a new net, a net that when tested last year, reduced accidental catch of sturgeon by about 80%.
“Was last year a fluke? We don’t think so,” says Albert Spells, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Virginia Fisheries Coordinator who has been providing scientific guidance to Trice. The pair, along with a slew of other partners, have collaborated on sturgeon research for more than eight years with the help of funding from the Virginia General Assembly’s Fishery Resource Grant Program (FRGP).
When it comes to recommending a new type of fishing gear, Spells says, one year’s data isn’t enough because too many variables can affect performance. For example, water temperatures, which change daily, could impact catch. Then there’s equipment. In 2010, the company that made the floats that Trice used went out of business. The materials Trice uses now have different buoyancy, which could affect how the gear behaves in the water.
“This is why it’s important to have fishermen doing this research,” says Tom Murray, Virginia Sea Grant’s Marine Extension Leader at Virginia Institute of Marine Science. “Conditions for the industry are different than for researchers.”
Murray has administered the FRGP since 1999. The fund was set up by Virginia’s General Assembly to empower members of the seafood industry to find solutions to their industry’s emerging concerns. FRG research such as Trice’s provides scientific data for resource managers as well as ground truthing for industry.
As Spells says, “It’s all about repeatability… If [fishermen are] going to use this net, we have to show it works.”
Adjusting gear to avoid sturgeon has become more important as of April 6, when Atlantic sturgeon populations from New York to Florida have gained endangered species status. The listing is causing concern in lucrative fisheries, such as striped bass fishery in Virginia and the cod, monkfish, and others throughout the coast.
These fisheries use gill nets that are deployed in the water for anywhere from a couple of hours to more than a day. The top edge floats in the water column, while the bottom edge typically makes contact with the river bottom.
In the net Trice and Spells are testing, there’s a three-foot gap between the river floor and the net. The idea being that bottom-dwelling sturgeon will encounter the net and simply swim under it.
It’s uncertain how the listing will affect fishermen. Although no one has proposed closing Virginia’s striped bass fishery, which lands more than 2 million pounds annually totaling more than $3M according to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, the capture of Atlantic sturgeon is prohibited. This begs the question: What will happen as the industry inevitably, but accidentally captures sturgeon?
With the looming unknown of what regulations might come, Trice says he’d rather avoid sturgeon altogether. So far this year, he’s done a decent job—as of Monday, May 8 only five sturgeon were caught in the experimental net, compared to nine in the standard net.
Reducing sturgeon catch even this much is promising. Says Spells, “This could have a real impact all along the Atlantic coast.”