You never know quite exactly what’s going to come up in the net. Take, for example, the oyster toadfish. Before you do a Google Image search, consider the words the state Department of Natural Resources uses to describe it: “Has a wide head, large mouth, ‘warty looking’ skin. Spiny dorsal fin can administer a painful puncture. Sharp gill covers and strong jaws give further reason to handle with care.”
But dealing with this fine resident of the deep is all part of a day’s work for DNR Coastal Resources Division staff who man the R/V Anna. They dip their net in at one of their stations and bring up a haul that helps determine how the state handles shrimp and crabs, along with collecting data on creatures that join in on the fun, like the toadfish or the equally strange mantis shrimp.
Over the last 43 years, crews brought up more than 600,000 specimens covering more than 250 species.
“We have 36 sites along the coast of Georgia — six per sound system,” B.J. Hilton, a CRD marine biologist, said Wednesday while the crew hit stations off Brunswick. “St. Simons Sound, we have six sites. We’ll have two river stations which are upriver a little bit, two sound stations, and then two offshore stations. So, that gives us a good idea of what’s in the entire estuary and off the beach to the 3-mile line, which are state waters. And then we do that for every sound system all the way to Savannah, all the way to Wassaw Sound and all the way down to Cumberland, actually.
“It’s a 12-month survey — we don’t stop. So, we do 36 stations, the same stations every single month. As far as an average day, this is our shortest trip, because we’re doing St. Simons today. It’s day trips to St. Andrews and Cumberland sounds, to sample those, and then we have a two-night trip up north and sample those sound systems up toward the Savannah-Richmond Hill area. Those are a little more of a grind, if you will, because it’s all the sound systems up north, and, you know, a two-day stretch.”
The stations reach from just west of the Raccoon Keys area of Cumberland Island, north into the Bill River off of Little Tybee Island. The effort is called the “Ecological Monitoring Trawl Survey,” and it’s been the business of CRD since 1976.
With the number of people on board, the jobs to be done and the amount of geography to cover, there is the economy of space common to working vessels. It also takes a toll on the Anna.
“The keel was laid in ’66, and she was launched in ’68 — built right there on the St. Simons causeway, where the old Manhattan Marina was, on the Mackay River, by the Wilson brothers,” said Captain Rust Flournoy. He’s been at the helm for 35 years.
It was intended as a small commercial vessel, but didn’t stay that way for long and went into the service of the state for several decades. Its days with CRD are numbered — there’s a new boat that should be on its way in the next year. Hilton said that, like other methods of transportation, the money it takes to keep the Anna working and seaworthy is too much to justify keeping the boat on the books.
What the crew catches helps determine the opening and closure of the shrimping season. The key is the weighing and count of 3 pounds of shrimp. The fewer shrimp it takes to reach 3 pounds, the better the chances are of opening the fishery.
“Everything usually goes smoothly,” Hilton said. “This time of year, our catches aren’t as big during the winter. As the water warms, our catches get a lot larger. So, we kind of need more hands on deck in the warmer summer months as far as working over our catch on the back deck. It gets a lot bigger.”
The sorting, measuring and data logging is done usually in a two-team operation, with other staffers assisting.
“Two people (each) will take the crabs and shrimp and work that out separately over here,” said CRD marine technician Robert Overman, gesturing to a table on the port side of the rear of the boat. “Usually I go with the fish — I’ll take all the fish, in their buckets, and take them to the station over here.”
Next to the sorting table and the buckets is a covered workstation with a computer and a weighing area. The crew will weigh and measure five of non-economically important fish, but have to go through 30 for “key species.”
“This shrimp data goes into setting the seasons for our, Georgia’s, commercial food shrimp fishery,” Hilton said. “This data’s very important — it goes a long way to determining the closing and the opening dates for Georgia’s commercial shrimp season. But, while we’re getting all these other species and bycatch, might as well collect data on those, too.”
The 40-foot flat net doesn’t have a bycatch reduction device or a turtle excluder device — CRD has a permit to trawl in this manner, because of the short time period — 15 minutes — the small amount collected and the necessity of getting a fuller view of what’s going on under the surface.
“When (Flournoy) determines (the proper direction in which to head), he will go ahead, we will get the net all ready to go, and he’ll say ‘go ahead and let the net down,’ and the doors, what they do — those big, wooden things that you saw — they spread apart,” Overman said. “The water hits them and they spread. And they’re heavy too, so they take the net to the bottom, and they kind of slide along the bottom, gently.
“In between the doors is what they call a tickle chain, and it goes from door to door, and it runs just slightly ahead of the mouth of the net, and it just kind of tickles the bottom. So, that way, if there’s any shrimp down there, that chain will make them kind of jump up off the bottom — if they’re burrowed up in the mud a little bit — it’ll make them jump up and when they jump up, of course, the net’s there to catch them.”
After the catch falls on the sorting table, the crew gets to work not only to separate out the different species, but also the debris — one trawl Wednesday pulled up a significant amount of marsh wrack.
“So, while we’re doing all this workup, Rusty, the captain, he usually is motoring on to the next station, so it’s pretty efficient,” Overman said. “Sometimes the stations are close together, and a lot of them are far apart. The ones that are closer together, in the summertime, our catch is heavier — we get a lot more catch — and it gets pretty fast-paced on here, because we’re trying to get it all worked up before the next drag, because if not, we’ll be behind. And then some times he’ll have to motor around and wait on us to catch up.”
But this time of year, Overman said, it’s not a problem, considering there are fewer creatures and smaller sizes.
The crew sets about sorting what’s there with bare hands. Wednesday, it was primarily shrimp, blue crabs and flounder, but you never know what will take a ride, leading to catfish and the aforementioned toadfish and mantis shrimp. Your day can take a pretty quick turn in the wrong direction by putting a finger where it’s not supposed to go.
But Hilton said it’s simply easier to do the job without gloves, but they have to be careful about how they do it. After all, there are some creatures on which is hard to get a handle. A tongue fish, appropriately named, fell on the sorting table, and it took some time to corral the slippery thing and put it in the appropriate bucket.
Considering the average age of shrimpers and the changing industry, it’s rather poetic to have a 51-year-old vessel hitting the waters to assist in regulating the fishery. Then there’s the winch, which appears for some gallows humor. The Anna’s winch comes courtesy of the Stroudsburg Engine Works in Pennsylvania. It began in 1903 and provided hoists for liberty ships in World War II. After the war, the company concentrated on shrimp boat winches — hence the contraption on the Anna.
Stroudsburg shut down manufacturing in 1989, though, and its machine shop closed in 1992. Its plant is now the home of an antique mall, the Olde Engine Works.