Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Tag-A-Giant Nova Scotia 2015: First Bite

It’s 6am and the floodlights cast their rays on the back deck of the f/v Bay Queen IV in Murphy’s Pond, Port Hood’s small commercial fishing port on the west coast of Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia.  Captain Dennis Cameron and mate Lloyd MacInnes move around the deck coiling lines and crimping monofilament, bantering over the low rumble of the inboard.

Murphy's Pond in Port Hood, Nova Scotia 
photo credit: R. Schallert
We approach the dock in our minivan loaded with crates of scientific gear and snacks for our day on the water. Dr. Steve Wilson and Robbie Schallert of Stanford University and the Tag-A-Giant Foundation lift a heavy silver crate and shuffle towards the Bay Queen IV, greeting the crews of the various vessels staging their gear in the grey light.  The crate is full of acoustic and satellite tags that, with luck, will be deployed on some of the largest tunas in the world.

The TAG team has been coming up to Nova Scotia every fall for the past 8 years and it shows.  Robbie cracks jokes with Melvin, Troy, Carl and more as we make our way down the floating dock. TAG has fostered lifelong relationships within the Port Hood community to create a collaborative environment; we couldn’t tag without their ocean expertise, and our research contributes to the sustainable management of their local bluefin fishery.
Loading the bait well with mackerel in the morning light
photo credit: E. Estess
We shove off as the clouds turn a light pink hue. The first order of business, as with all fishing, is bait.  Dennis eyes the echo sounder and quickly shifts out of gear when he spots a school of mackerel.  We keep the biggest mackerel in the live-well and motor off towards the tuna grounds.  Once we’re in the zone Lloyd rigs up two of the thick rods with live mackerel and pink balloons as surface floats, and the third rod is connected to a kite line to dangle a live mackerel at the surface.  And now we wait.

Radio calls come in from across the Gulf of St. Lawrence.  “Congratulations Bill, glad to hear you got your fish.”  “We’re marking lots of fish over here boys.”  Again, I take note of the friendly, collaborative nature of the fishery. Canadians really are as nice as people say!  After hours of silence we decide to pick up our lines and try another spot. More silence and no tuna marks on the echo sounder.

Searching the Gulf of St. Lawrence for giant bluefin
photo credit: R. Schallert
This is our second day on the water and the fishing has been silent.  Not to mention the weather has been on the rough side of the spectrum.  Part of me accepts that this is the nature of fishing- the bite is always hotter the week before. It’s fishing, not catching. Am I wearing my lucky tuna belt? I didn’t even bring any bananas on board.  These old catchphrases and superstitions drift through my mind as the hours flow on.

Deep down I know I’m paying a karmic penance after my last trip up to Port Hood in 2013, when we tagged up to 9 giant bluefin in a day and fished for 5 days straight in sunny, flat calm conditions.  I knew I was going to have to pay some dues, and bouncing around in the cabin with my hands shoved deep into my foul weather jacket to keep warm in the Arctic breeze, I accepted my fate with a meditative mantra, “It’s fishing, not tagging.”

Wind on the water. Waiting for action.
photo credit: E. Estess
At that moment, I watched the monofilament pull tight and the pink balloon float disappear. SNAP! The rubber band holding the Teflon leader guard broke and it rocketed down the line to protect the mono leader from the glass-sharp teeth of the giant tuna below.  BZZZZZZZZZZZ the line screamed off the reel as Lloyd rocketed across the deck and started cranking away.  Dennis began maneuvering the vessel, backing down on the fish to gain slack in the 300lb test line like a boxer circling their opponent in the ring.  The rod bent with strain as the fish made a run and Lloyd waited patiently for his chance to gain line.
But as quickly as it had come, the tuna jerked the hook from its mouth and was gone.  Lloyd silently reeled in the slack line, pausing to look at the bent hook.  Strike one, but after days of no action the reminder of the power of these animals was enough inspiration.  The fish are around. They’re always on the move throughout the gulf waters as they hunt for herring and mackerel, and it takes skill and decent dose of luck to line up on them.  Weather permitting, we will be putting in our time these next weeks to tag and release these beautiful giants, unlocking the secrets of their life history and migratory routes to inform the sustainable management of the tuna fishery.

Hoping for an evening bite.
photo credit: E. Estess

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Bluefin Satellite Tag Hunt

Low Fog kisses the Highlands along the Cabot Trail
Place yourself for a moment in the office of a tuna tagging scientist staring at a map with a GPS location of a popped-off mini-PAT satellite tag.  The tag had been attached to a Giant Bluefin Tuna for the past 10 months, and it contains a virtual diary of its movements, behaviours and environments encountered.  The tag is sending a summary of the tuna’s story to a satellite which relays it to your computer.  This summary data is like reading the first and final chapter of a novel and the story line on the back cover.  It’s valuable and you get the highlights and main point of it all, but you feel cheated somehow, especially after you spent weeks travelling and fishing to tag the tuna in the first place. If you can get the tag back, you can download the entire "story".

A lot of tags pop off far from shore, well beyond reach of an inshore vessel’s range.  So what happens when a tag comes to the surface 15 kms from shore?  And 25 kms from the nearest port where you know a local fisher who has a boat at the dock?  You scramble; you email, call and coordinate a recovery as fast as humanly possible…and then you pray, for good weather, calm seas and good visibility.  On Wednesday, this week, such an event happened.  Although I wasn’t the scientist staring at the map of the first GPS location, early Thursday morning...I was the scientist along with a Honours student from Acadia University rushing to the dock to jump on board the ‘Mary Heather’ captained by TAG-A-GIANT’s Captain Lloyd MacInnes based out of Little River, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.
The search for the tag begins
Finding a tag the size of an egg with a thin black antenna sticking out would be an ok Easter-egg-hunt on land. However, throw in waves, a large area, a GPS location that is hours old, and the fact that the tag is floating with only the antenna peaking out, all of a sudden the easter egg hunt isn't quite as easy. That’s where Seth Newall, a Honours student from Acadia University comes in.  He brought a "tag locator" with him, which picks up the specific frequency of the tag and allows us to home in on the signal.  It’s a lot like playing ‘hot-cold’ as a kid, except you’re still looking for a black, half-submerged tag within 300 to 50 m of the boat.  So with Captain Lloyd at the helm spinning circles and squiggles on his chart display, Seth relaying signal strength of the tag, and myself standing on the cabin roof searching the water, we played that very game.  It was bit foggy, but relatively calm, no breaking waves or chop.  With help texts coming from TAG-A-GIANT’s Robbie Schallert in Texas, we honed our rookie skills using the tag locator.  Seth’s signal strength got stronger as the search continued.  After 3 hours of playing hide-and-seek, I spotted the black egg with antenna sticking straight up, 20 m off the port bow.
“I got it!” I yelled out, “10 o’clock! 60 feet off the port side!”
“I see it!” confirmed Captain Lloyd.
“Seth, grab the dip net while I keep an eye on it!” I instructed.
Captain Lloyd had the boat alongside the tag within seconds.  He wasn’t waiting for a dip net.  He had a deck-brush in hand and was frantically sweeping the tag closer to the boat.  Seth netted our find and with that, we had in hand the day-to-day story of one Bluefin.
Relieved Capt. with the tag

Close up of the Wildlife Computers miniPAT
Steaming back to port, the sun broke through the fog to illuminate the sea’s surface and rocky cliffs onshore, yet the lush green mountain tops of Cape Breton’s Highlands remained covered.  A pod of white-sided dolphins broke the surface and a puffin dove under upon the Mary Heather’s approach.  Some gifts in view while others remained out of sight, a fitting summary to our search’s conclusion.
Acadia Team with the tag safely secured!!

-          Written by Aaron Spares, Acadia University Coastal Ecology Lab