Keeping Tabs On Bay Life

August 24, 1994|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,Ocean City Bureau of The Sun

OCEAN CITY -- The data look so dry, like a science report you have to read for the exam. Bound in a folder, with tables and unreadable maps and biology terms, it's titled "Investigation of Maryland's Atlantic Ocean and Coastal Bay Finfish Stocks."

But how those data are assembled isn't dry at all, literally or figuratively -- it's a lively day on the bay in Ocean City with Al Wesche.

If saltwater could produce leprechauns, Mr. Wesche would be the result: small, bearded, weathered, with a sharp wit and a steady hand with all things marine: flounder, trout, crabs, 3-foot stingrays, even a Budweiser can or two.

"That's an anchovy -- same thing you get on the pizza," he says to an observer as he picks through a 17-gallon galvanized tub teeming with live fish, crabs and assorted other marine specimens.

Mr. Wesche is counting the fish in the bay, as he does most days during the summer, assembling data for the Department of Natural Resources' coastal bay fish survey. Working from a 22.5-foot C Hawk boat with two outboard motors, he and DNR engineering department worker Larry Hughes have just made the first of the day's six trawls with a 25-foot net.

It's a carefully choreographed routine. They go to one of 20 sampling sites in the bays along Maryland's coast (each site is sampled once each month between April and October), throw over a green net and the wooden "doors" that keep the net open, feed out a line attached to the net and trawl for exactly six minutes (they use a timer). Then they haul in the net, empty the contents into a galvanized tub and Mr. Wesche counts and measures everything. The results are recorded in a yellow log.

"This year is an exceptional year so far -- we don't know why," says Mr. Wesche. "We have a lot of flounder, a lot of little spot fish, croakers . . ."

The data are entered into a computer each month and sent to Annapolis, where the information is analyzed and used to help formulate fishing regulations and habitat protections.

"We like to know what we've got, where they are, how many there are and how big they are," says Annapolis-based fisheries biologist Harley Speir, who supervises the annual finfish report. "We need to protect our stock both from overfishing and habitat destruction."

The monthly inventories are funded by federal taxes on fishing equipment and outboards, he says. The money is distributed to the states on the basis of land area and number of fishing licenses issued.

"It's pretty standard practice," Mr. Speir says of the survey. "Every state from at least Delaware south has some sort of finfish small-trawl count."

Whatever turns up in Mr. Wesche's net is counted and then returned to the bay. On a recent day, one trawl turned up enough to nearly fill the galvanized tub, including sizable flounder, lots of crabs and a 3-foot stingray with a very active tail.

No matter, the ray had his turn with Mr. Wesche's wooden ruler (everything is measured in millimeters) before he was tossed back into the bay.

"Everything changes here so much because it's such a dynamic environment," Mr. Wesche says. Channels move, islands form, sandbars appear. "It's a good area for people who sell boat propellers!"

How does he know he's sampling the same sites every time?

"It's not exactly the same spot every time," Mr. Wesche says. "But it's pretty close. We use LORAN [a navigational system] sometimes, but we're probably just as accurate without it. After 20-some years, you just know."

Mr. Wesche, a 47-year-old fisheries biologist from Barnes, Kan., has been in Ocean City since 1974. Nothing that turns up in the bucket seems to faze him; he picks up crabs, rays, slippery flounder, sand dabs, trout, puffers and everything else with insouciance.

"Crab is about the most miserable thing to work with, because you're trying to get 'em out and they're fighting the whole time, pinching everything and killing other fish," he observes.

Indeed; nearly every crab he pulls out has managed to catch a fish in its claws during a brief stay in the tub. Mr. Wesche sometimes separates the fish and crab, sometimes just measures them while they're still attached. He never gets pinched by the crab.

At each site he also samples the water with a salinity meter. It looks like a mantel clock with a small tube attached, and it's a little temperamental, apparently.

"Well, at least it's working today," he says after the first sample. "It should be; it's been in that office staying dry." The machine doesn't do well when it gets wet, he says, an unexpected weakness in a marine tool.

He samples from the Delaware line to the Virginia line, from Assawoman Bay across from Ocean City through Sinepuxent Bay as far south as Assateague.

The DNR also takes similar inventories of the Chesapeake Bay.

The sampling's real value is over time, both Mr. Wesche and Mr. Speir agree; over a year, trends become apparent. "They're much more valuable as an annual average," Mr. Speir says of the counts.

The bay offers plenty of diversity, both men agreed, although there are still some species that are too low. Flounder is one.

And anything can turn up in the net, says Mr. Wesche.

"I trawled over by 28th Street once and caught 60, 70 cans and five golf balls!" he recalls.

"It's amazing what you catch. Outboard motors, shoes. . . . I've caught everything but a body."

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