SCDNR begins studying reef and fish counts off Charleston’s coast

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PRESS RELEASE. Before dawn on Tuesday, one of the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources core marine research programs quietly marked the start of a landmark field season.

A dozen marine biologists, crew members and captains boarded the blue deck of the R/V Palmetto in Charleston by 4AM. The largest of the agency’s marine research vessels was outfitted for a week at sea – loaded with a dozen large buckets of iced bait, enough food to sustain long days pulling in and processing fish and more white rubber boots than a shrimp boat. The team set out southeast under 10-mph winds for their first trap sampling of the year.

A similar scene unfolded fifty years prior. The year was 1972, when gas cost 55 cents per gallon, The Godfather aired in theaters and the last U.S. troops withdrew from Vietnam.

Biologists at South Carolina’s newly established Marine Resources Center had recently been awarded funding from a new, nationwide program designed to study the numbers, movement and habitat of the United States’ offshore fish. The federal Marine Resources Monitoring, Assessment and Prediction (MARMAP) program’s work would help experts keep tabs on the health of economically important fish such as sea basses, snappers and groupers.

That first research cruise out of Charleston was a 20-day trip from North Carolina all the way to Miami, Florida aboard the white R/V Dolphin. They catch adult fish in trawl nets and larval fish in plankton nets. The small, all-male team knew the importance of the work they were undertaking, but they could not have foreseen that, fifty years later, theirs would be the only arm of the originally funded MARMAP programs still in existence, serving as a model for fisheries research across the country.

“These folks really were pioneers for our modern-day reef fish surveys, said said Dr. Tracey Smart, recently appointed head of the survey. “They tried new things, sometimes failed, but built on creative ideas to conduct good science, and we’re trying our best to continue to build upon that history,” 

With a reliable new vessel – the R/V Palmetto – and decades of experience behind them, the team spent the 1990s fine-tuning the use of baited chevron traps to sample fish, which they use to this day. They continued their offshore excursions from North Carolina to Florida in the warmer months of each year, and they continued providing the data they amassed to federal partners.

It was in the last two decades that the survey matured into the recognizable force for research that it remains today. In the 2000s, increased funding allowed biologists to spend more days at sea – climbing from an average of 40 sea days per year to 100. And that translated to a dramatic increase in sampling stations – from 350 stations to 1,500 – and therefore more data.

“The data legacy we’ve inherited is really unique, especially in this region, and the combined efforts of historical trapping, aging, reproduction, and newer cameras provides a much more comprehensive view of life for our reef fish than we’ve ever had before,” said Dr. Smart.

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