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Learning About Fish at the Coast

This semester the CNR Enrichment Fund allowed me to continue my studies at the North Carolina coast in Morehead City. To obtain my degree and further my education with hands-on internship experience, I chose to spend the semester studying at NC State’s secondary campus, the Center for Marine Sciences and Technology (CMAST). While studying at NC State’s CMAST and completing my aquaculture internship with Carteret Community College (CCC), I had the privilege of going on a number of excursions throughout the coastal area.

One weekend in April, fellow CMAST undergrad Anna and I went out with graduate researcher Olivia to sample fish in subtidal oyster reefs. It was a two-day trip in which we set the gill nets and traps on the first day and retrieved them the next day. The tasks of this trip were to catch and identify fish, take measurements, release them, and take water quality measurements for each of the four sites. From all the water quality I had been doing with my aquaculture internship, I was very familiar with a YSI and prepared to help. As research assistants, Anna and I were meant to help Olivia in every way possible.

Our second day began with a 6:30am wake up time. We packed up, drove to the dock, launched the boat, and we were off to collect gear from the sites in Caffee Bay. Pulling in the nets and carefully combing through for fish, extracting them without committing murder, proved its own challenge in addition to the choppy water of the morning. I got seasick but knew that the research was going to happen with or without me. So, I did not let this hinder my motivation to continue helping to count, identify, and measure fish. The dead and alive buckets of fish from the gill nets were mostly filled with menhaden and spot. When collecting the traps, we only captured one fish, but lots of crabs. At least in the traps the crabs were easier to get out for measurement and release. The crabs caught in gill nets took forever to set free. It was amazing to see the diversity of fish that live on reefs in the North Carolina Pamlico Sound. The water was so low in salinity on the day of surveying that we even caught a freshwater catfish!

As the day went on, I got better at surveying the fish; the water calmed, and my seasickness subsided. I learned the importance of continuing to work in order to distract from the dizzy feeling and knowing when to stop and look at the horizon. It was amazing to see first-hand fishes that we had talked about in class. The best part was when I got to hold a croaker and feel it croak in my hand. Not only was this experience enjoyable but I learned valuable estuarine fish identification skills and became an expert gill netter. These are skills that I can carry with me into my career.

On the long journey back to the dock, I had a chance to pilot the boat. This now beautiful afternoon allowed us to be up close and personal with a group of bottlenose dolphin who looked like they were feeding. Certainly, they were enjoying the spot and croaker that we knew were around from our sampling just minutes earlier. As we came to the dock, the fatigue of a long two days on the water had set in but the memories of a fantastic experience were just being processed. Thanks to my time at CMAST and CCC, I now know that animals should certainly be a part of my future endeavors.