When I lived in Virginia Beach I was pals with a couple spearfishermen. About 12 miles off the coast lies Chesapeake Light Tower, where we used go for a festive day on the water.
The light tower was recently taken over by the Department of Energy to study wind patterns, wave and tidal energy. They hope to develop a wind farm in nearby waters. For an interesting piece on the light tower, see http://hamptonroads.com/2012/10/chesapeake-light-tower-begins-new-era. The comment section has some good discussion points.
Yes, that was in my Captain Morgan era, and quite frankly, sometimes I dont know (or remember) how we made it back to dry land intact. The irony was that one of us was a Coast Guard officer, the other owned a dock and bulkhead business, I was a bank vice president, and we all should have known better. But such is life in a resort town.
The main attraction for them on the light tower was either spearing spadefish, or snagging them with treble hooks on light tackle during our surface interval. Spadefish were abundant, and loved circling the legs of the tower.
The great smell of spadefish on the grill and a big bucket of mussels we scraped off the tower made it real simple to keep going back for more. Those were some really great times. But life is better in the Keys.
Spadefish are the only species of its family that reside in the Western Atlantic. In the Pacific there are at least six species of spadefish, where they are also commonly known as batfish. While they are common in the Keys, in other parts of the Caribbean they are not as prevalent. Ive seen schools numbering in the hundreds from the south end of Molasses all the way up to Carysfort. One of the largest schools Ive seen was on Deep French.
Once you spot a school even a small one of a dozen or so the best way to photograph them is to let them come to you. If you chase them, they will turn the other way. If you like to take tail shots, then by all means pursue at your leisure. Usually within two or three minutes they will swoop down to check me out.
Their effortless glide path through the water column as they approach is worth the wait. Even though two or three minutes may feel like twenty as you monitor gauges and depth, hang out. They will come. Out of curiosity, I looked at spadefish population trends from NOAAs fishery database (www.st.nmfs.noaa.gov). This is a great website for doodling with data. Once again I see a downward trend in a species.
Statewide, the number of fish caught in recreational activities was over 750,000 in 2000. In 2010 the total was less than 300,000. Data for 2011 and 2012 are down even further than that, but the estimates for those years are imprecise, exceeding the standard measurement error by too wide of a margin for me deem reliable. However, if those figures are even remotely accurate, the post-Deep Horizon numbers are abysmal. Beyond the astounding huge percentage drop in the catch numbers, average length and weight data show smaller individuals.
Hmmm, now why would the post-Deep Horizon/post-cold-winter numbers be so wacky?
There are not many studies on the reproductive life of spadefish. They spawn from May to October, and water temperature and salinity are factors in the behavior patterns, as expected. Perhaps the cold spell that damaged many other species had an effect on spadefish, too. Im just guessing.
I decided to dig a little deeper into my post-Deep-Horizon theory. I found a thesis by Mark Stead of Louisiana State University, from 2003. He studied the effects of nonlethal doses of ethylene glycol (EG) and methanol (MeOH) on juvenile pompano and spadefish. For spadefish, up to an eighteen percent reduction in swimming ability was observed after ingestion of EG. There was a greater reduction for pompano.
EG and MeOH are used extensively in oil production. In his thesis, Mr. Stead says the possibility of a large spill is unlikely. Oops. Tell that to BP. Did the spill effect the critical swimming speed of juvenile pompano and spadefish? I think its a great question to ask the scientists assessing our fisheries in a post-spill world.
As a former pinch-runner/base stealer in my college baseball days, I can tell you that an 18 percent reduction in my speed would have meant I wasnt going to run for anyone today. Or any other day. A juvenile spadefish, to survive, needs the speed to avoid predators and feed effectively.
Intuitively, I can see why the numbers for spadefish have tanked in the last two years. Slower swimmers (theory) of smaller size (fact) are not surviving in the numbers we had ten years ago. All conjecture from a non-scientist, of course.
Recently spadefish have been the subject of aquaculture experiments. At the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, researchers Michael Schwarz and Dan Sennett are leading a Sea Grant-funded team to determine the spawning and feeding needs of spadefish in an aquaculture setting. They see potential for spadefish as foodfish, ornamentals for the aquarium industry and as stock enhancement for wild populations. See http://vaseagrant.vims.edu/2011/11/29/spadefish-aquacultur/ for the details.
Spadefish schools are a real treat to swim with in the Keys. Lets hope the numbers in the coming years rebound to turn of the century levels.
Tim Grollimund is a freelance photographer and PADI divemaster based in Key Largo. He can be reached at email@example.com or through his web site at www.timgimages.com. Tim is actively involved with the Coral Restoration Foundation and the Aquarius Foundation.