Scientist at the Pier

In Gloucester Point, Virginia, a wooden, T-shaped public fishing pier juts into the York River, six miles from where the waterway meets Chesapeake Bay. To the pier’s right, the Coleman drawbridge connects rural Gloucester Point to Yorktown, a destination for seekers of colonial-era charm. To the pier’s left, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science’s brick buildings sit up on a hill, only a few minutes away by foot.

At 3 a.m. on a Wednesday, you’d expect the pier to be dark, empty, and quiet. None of these things are true. The night is bright and loud. Bridge lamps spill orange light onto the river, and fifteen anglers stand and sit in the shine of the pier’s stadium lights, their fishing poles leaning against railings. They yell and laugh as if it’s a house party. Then a big, white truck with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) logo pulls into the parking lot.

Cindy Marin Martinez, a VIMS graduate student, jumps from the driver’s side door. It’s June, but she wears a fleece jacket, jeans, and rubber boots to keep out the night’s chill. Her hair is long and thick and black, already escaping from a hastily made braid. But she doesn’t seem to care, as she wheels a wagon holding a large net from the truck  to the pier—she’s here to catch larval fish. Nights like these usually involve a lot of waiting, but Martinez tries to make the most of her time.

“Some nights I watch the moon,” she says. “Sometimes there are fireworks across the river.” The fireworks are from Williamsburg’s Busch Gardens, a theme park 15 miles away. An avid angler herself, Martinez occasionally brings her own pole, rigs her net so that she doesn’t have to hold it, and casts a line, joining the nighttime anglers around her.

These nights at the pier tie into Martinez’s work as a Virginia Sea Grant graduate research fellow. She wants to find out how environmental conditions, like water temperature and salinity, affect the abundance of larval fishes in the York River—the one and only source of adult fishes. Without larval fishes, no anglers would be at the pier tonight.

A fish is “larval” from the moment it hatches until it becomes a juvenile, which is defined by the presence of fins and scales. Larval fishes are transparent and range from four- to thirty-millimeters long. They look more like miniscule shards of glass than fish. While some are miniatures of their adult form, many species look nothing like their future selves.

That is, if they live long enough. Although the larval stage for most species is only several weeks, this is when a fish is most likely to die. The water is a dangerous place if you are tiny and terrible at swimming. Larval fishes primarily rely on tides and currents for transportation. When a predator, which includes almost everything in the water larger than a larval fish, confronts them, there’s no escape.

Martinez is studying five species that support important commercial and recreational fisheries: Atlantic menhaden, Atlantic croaker, spot, summer flounder, and American eel. Some people may recognize summer flounder from their dinner plate, or the American eel for its historic role as staple food of Native Americans and early colonists of the Chesapeake Bay region. But these other, less familiar fish are equally as valuable—like the Atlantic menhaden.

Menhaden has a serious underbite and comically large mouth. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration describes it as “unfit for human food consumption due to its small size and high oil content.” Yet this fish supports the largest commercial fishery in the Chesapeake Bay, and the second largest fishery in the United States because it is chock-full of omega-3 fatty acids—essential fats that humans and many other animals must acquire through diet. Fisheries grind menhaden into fishmeal and oil, which are ideal ingredients for pet food, livestock and aquaculture feed, and dietary supplements.

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