Last March, commercial shark fisherman Eric Sander made a record catch while long-lining in the Atlantic Ocean 30 miles off Daytona Beach. The 85-pound female sandbar shark was only fair-sized for the species, but what made it stand out was the American Littoral Society (ALS) tag that it carried. Sander returned the tag, No. 15658, to the society, and a check of the records showed that 15658 had been applied on Aug. 25, 1971, when the then 12-pound shark had been caught, tagged and released off Villas, N.J., in Delaware Bay. The fish had set a record: The 19 years spent at sea was the longest time any ALS-tagged fish had been at liberty.
Sander's catch was noteworthy in one other aspect. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the tagging program, and it turned out that the shark had been tagged by Graham Macmillan, who started the program in 1965 while a vice-president of the ALS, a national coastal conservation group.
From the start, ALS members have made the program self-supporting by buying the tagging kits (currently $4.00 but rising to $5.00 after January 1). Each kit contains a hollow stainless steel tagging needle, 10 individually numbered yellow plastic spaghetti tags marked RETURN LITTORAL SOCIETY, HIGHLANDS N.J. 07732 and 10 correspondingly numbered postcards on which to record the date, the location, the species caught and its length and weight as well as the tagger's name and address.
A set of instructions also comes with each kit. Tagging requires careful handling of the fish to keep it from going into shock. To avoid this, experienced angler-taggers use lures with single, rather than treble, hooks. The barb on the hook is also crushed with pliers so that it can be easily removed. Most taggers also favor heavy tackle so that a fish can be landed quickly without becoming exhausted. The fish is then laid on a damp rag to preserve the natural coating of slime that protects it from bacterial infection, while another damp rag is placed over the eyes to calm it. After measuring the length of the fish from the snout to the fork of the tail, the tagger inserts a tag into the blunt end of the hollow tagging needle and pushes the sharp end under a scale and through the fish's back near the dorsal fin. The needle is slipped off the tag after it has passed all the way through the fish's body, and the ends of the tag are made even and tied together in an overhand knot, leaving an inch of space between the knot and the back to allow for growth of the fish. After the knot is closely trimmed, the fish is returned to the water as gently as possible.
At present, about a thousand of the 10,000 ALS members tag fish—almost all of them on the East Coast—but executive director Dery Bennett expects the number of taggers to grow with the recent opening of a West Coast ALS office in Olympia, Wash. Since the program began, the ALS has sold 240,000 tags, and a total of 115,000 fish have been tagged. So far, 4,600 of those fish have been recaptured, a return rate of 4%. When a tag is turned in to the ALS, staff-member Pam Carlsen sends all information about the fish to both the tagger and the person who caught it. She also writes a regular tag return report for Underwater Naturalist, the ALS quarterly magazine, and forwards the data to a computer data base maintained by the National Marine Fisheries Service, in Woods Hole, Mass.
What do the recaptures show? For one thing, that some fish do not move very far in their lifetime. Dr. Tom Campbell, in St. Petersburg, Fla., has tagged more than 500 barracuda. Thus far, 30 of them have been recaptured, all within 10 miles of where they were tagged.
Curiously, even fish known to be highly migratory often return to the same area in which they were originally caught. This is especially true of striped bass, some of which are known to swim back and forth between North Carolina and Nova Scotia—a distance of 1,500 miles—in the course of a year. For instance, on Oct. 8, 1985, Brad Conant, of the Milford ( Conn.) Striped Bass Club, tagged a 28-inch bass about a mile up the Housatonic River from Long Island Sound. On Oct. 15, 1989, four years and one week later, Art Baron, president of the same club, fishing in the same spot, recaptured the bass, which then measured 33 inches in length. On June 4 of this year, Baron caught a 38-inch striper in the Housatonic. Eight years earlier, in the same river, John O'Keeffe had tagged the bass when it was 20 inches long.
Apparently fish that prey together also stay together. Two 13-inch stripers that Bill Shillingford tagged in Corsons Inlet, N.J., on Oct. 3. 1988, were both recaptured a month later by Jeff Eutsler in Ocean City, Md. Again, the two 12-pound stripers that Bob Bottino tagged at Deal, N.J., on July 5, 1989, were both caught on Nov. 4 by Mark Wilson at Sandy Hook, N.J., about 15 miles north.
Tag returns have revealed that as the seasons change, some fluke move in a northeasterly direction along the Atlantic-Coast. "If a fluke is tagged in one midsummer at Sandy Hook [ N.J.]," Carlson says, "it's likely to be caught the following year at Fire Island Inlet on Long Island, the year after that, at Moriches or Shinnecock inlets [farther east on Long Island]. In the middle of the winter, offshore commercial fishermen—and we have many who cooperate with us—catch them in depths of 60 to 100 fathoms."
In 1989 there was near panic among anglers because of a sudden drop in the number of fluke being caught. A year earlier. ALS members had tagged 1,737 fluke, but in 1989 they tagged only 176, a 90% decline. Was the decline attributable to a naturally poor spawning year, pollution, an increased catch by commercial offshore fishermen, or was it, so to speak, just a fluke?