The Flounder Roundup
Researchers test the prospects for underwater farming
By Brion O'Connor '83
Photos by David Lane
Steely mid-December skies greet the bleary-eyed crew of the RV/Gulf Challenger at the public fishing pier in Portsmouth, N.H. Crew members haul their gear -- diving equipment, oxygen tanks, makeshift fish nets -- down the slippery dock and file into the open stern of the boat. The hour -- about 7 a.m. -- is late by commercial fishermen's standards, early for college students. As Captain Paul Pelletier steers the Gulf Challenger past the Portsmouth Naval Yard, two members of the crew, Moira Goegel '99 and Gary Smith '00, curl up in hammocks in the boat's cabin for a few extra winks. It's not likely they'll dream of flounder. This odd-looking fish is not likely to be on the mind of a typical University of New Hampshire student at any hour of the day. Still, catching flounder -- or, to be more precise, collecting them -- is the purpose of this trip.
The raw cold is a constant companion as the vessel chugs through the harbor and into the open waters of the Atlantic, heading for a point in the open ocean roughly eight miles from Portsmouth and 1.5 miles from White Island Ledge. The crew, led by Noel C. Carlson '90, manager of the UNH Coastal Marine Laboratory, and Elizabeth Kintzing '78, a UNH scuba program manager, is on its way to collect 2,000 to 3,000 flounder from one of two large cages anchored near the Isles of Shoals. This fish harvest will be the crowning moment in the first year of an open-ocean aquaculture program developed through a partnership among UNH, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Great Bay Aquafarms and the Portsmouth Fishermen's Cooperative.
This is the first time anyone has tried to take hatchery-bred fish, raise them to commercial size in open-ocean cages and sell them on the open market. Ultimately, the goal of the project is to show that open-ocean aquaculture can be commercially viable and therefore attract investors, says W. Hunt Howell, a zoology professor at UNH who is co-directing the project with Ann C. Bucklin, professor of zoology and Sea Grant director at UNH. "The group that we're particularly interested in demonstrating to is the commercial fishing industry," he observes. "We're trying to see if this might provide them with some alternative ways of making a living."
The researchers are actually raising two types of seafood. The summer flounder are confined in the two submerged pens, and blue mussels are attached to nearby submerged long lines. "The idea was that if we could combine fin-fish culture and shellfish culture, the shellfish might be able to mitigate some of the negative affects of fin fish, and the shellfish might actually benefit from some of the waste produced by the fin fish," says Rich Langan, principal investigator of the mussel portion of the project.
So far, the mussels appear to have the edge on the race to market. While early projections indicated that the mussels might reach market size in 18 months, Langan believes that time can be reduced to 15 months or less. "For commercial fishermen, that means less time between their first investment and their first paycheck," he notes. Researchers are also encouraged by the quality of the cultured mussels. In the marketplace, a "select" mussel, with a 40 percent meat weight, draws about twice the price of an ordinary, garden-variety mussel. "Our mussels are much closer to 50 percent, so we know our quality is very good," Langan says.
On the fin-fish side of the ledger, this first harvest of summer flounder is only the beginning. This fall, cod will be introduced to the pens, and eventually haddock as well. "We selected these species because we're confident we can produce commercial-scale populations of young fish to put out in the cages," Bucklin says.
On board the Gulf Challenger, chatter among crew members builds as the vessel nears the pens. Despite the uncomfortable promise of chilly waters, everyone appears excited about the day's prospects. Most crew members are eager to try the newly designed hand-held nets to capture the fish, hoping they'll be a big improvement over previous methods. "Last time, I was chasing fish with this little bag, saying 'Get in here, get in here,'" says Goegel with a smile.
Unfortunately, the crew never gets to test the new nets on this day. Before the roundup can begin, divers have to bring the cages to the surface. This is done by taking a hose down to the cages and filling a lift bag with air, supplied by a compressor on the boat. Carlson and Kintzing dive to 105 feet to retrieve the first cage, but the lift bag fails to hold the cage's rim above the choppy seas. With the weather getting worse, Captain Pelletier decides to take the Gulf Challenger back to port.
A second attempt to harvest the fish two weeks later is successful. Another crew spends more than three hours underwater, retrieving more than 3,000 flounder. Many of the fish are too small to bring a good price on the commercial market, but the catch will provide a wealth of data for researchers, and Bucklin counts the aquaculture project's first year as a great success.
"We learned all kinds of lessons that we can put to use in the next field season," she says. "We've been able to take a species from egg to market, and we now know how to do it. We'll be learning more with two additional species in the near future, and we're going to show people that it can be done profitably in our waters."
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