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Sunday, July 4, 2010 - 8:00pm

Gray's Reef Goes To Great Lengths To Study Fish

Catching fish isn't as easy as it looks.

Last month, Gray's Reef sent about 40 people on five boats to tag and release about two dozen fish.

The effort was part of managing the reef, one of the nation's twelve marine sanctuaries.

I visited scientists on their mission.

After a 90 minute boat ride, I was on the deck of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's 187 foot research vessel, the Nancy Foster.

It was hot. The ship was swaying.

And below me, down 62-feet, divers saw what I couldn't: a craggy, live-bottom reef that some call an underwater national park.

A crane operator lifted a small orange boat from the water and on deck walked University of Georgia researcher Scott Nokes, head-to-toe in scuba gear.

"Both sites had very, very few fish," he said.

Nokes was part of an underwater spy network helping ten fishermen in small boats all around the Nancy Foster.

Their lines were just waiting for snapper and grouper to bite. Nokes was finding where to look.

"We're just going in advance to find out whether it's a good spot to try and catch," Nokes said.

"I could think of a number of fishermen who might like that to have you down there," I said.

"Yeah, that's cheating," Nokes said.

Researchers want to put tags on certain fish to find out where they go on the reef

And tagging is even more involved than catching.

Karen Pacquin of the UGA aquarium stood over a on-deck tank, gently moving a pair of fish through the water.

Without her help, the two-fish, called gags, looked sick and swim a bit wobbly.

"Sometimes when the gags or any fish come on board, they're very stressed out," she said. "So, they need assistance with swimming and need a little extra TLC and movement throughout the tank."

"They look kind of like I did when I arrived," I said.

"Yeah, you know, it's exhausing to them to be caught," said George Sedberry, manager of Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary.

"They fight it all the way to the surface," he said. "So, it takes them a while to recover. So, we'll keep them on board for 24 hours before we implant the tags in them."

During the tag-inserting surgery, the fish can't be anesthetized. It'll do more harm than good.

So, to keep them still whille he's cutting their bellies, Gray's Reef biologist Greg McFall had to invent what he calls a marine underwater surgery hospital out of bungee cord and sponge.

"I was out in the scrap yard, looking at pieces and parts that might help out and saw a large diameter P-V-C pipe that when cut into smaller pieces made an excellent fish clamp," McFall said.

McFall cut the fish open with a scalpal while Gray's Reef biologist Sara Fangman waited to plop a tag in its belly.

"This is the tag that we're inserting into the fish. It's about an inch long and as wide as a pencil," Fangman said.

McFall sewed the fish with stiches and surgical pliers, but it was another 24 hours before the fish was well enough to return to the reef.

It all makes you wonder why researchers would go through such effort over a few fish.

George Sedberry says, it's part of managing a national treasure.

"The more that we know about how many fish are here and where they live and where they range during their daily activities and their monthly activities and where they move about throughout the year, the better we can plan in the sanctuary and the better we can zone withing the sanctuary for different kinds of management," he said.

Gray's Reef could use the information to determine which parts of the reef to close to fishing in the near future.

The reef is a popular spot for more everday anglers who don't have a raft of boats, fishermen, divers and scientists to help them with a successful catch.

To learn more about the mission, see some spectacular photos and video, and read mission blogs, go to this website.

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