Behind all the ooohs and aaahs at area fishing tournaments, there is serious scientific and environmental work and research going on.
At the recent Mississippi Deep Sea fishing Rodeo, numerous state agencies collaborated to collect important data on the species of fish that were caught during the rodeo. Data dealing with length, weight, age, gender of the fish gives researchers and scientists great insight into the gulf coast marine life.
"If I had to go out and catch all the species of fish, and get the sample numbers we need for all the fish we study, I'd have to be out there all the time for years. Not that I wouldn't enjoy it," Barbara Viskup, an environmental scientist for the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality said.
Rodeos and fishing tournaments provide state officials a great variety marine wildlife to study. Along with the DEQ other agencies that recently worked and benefitted from the harvest at the Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo include the Department of Marine Resources, University of Southern Mississippi Gulf Coast Research Lab, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Mississippi Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Parks.
Jeff Grant is a marine fisheries technician with the DMR. One of his primary tasks is to harvest otoliths (commonly and mistakenly referred to as "ear stones") from the fish that are caught. When studied under a microscope the otolith will reveal rings which allow researchers to determine the fish's age. It is very similar to rings on tree trunk, indicating its age.
"I had never even seen a bank sea bass until the 2006 deep sea rodeo," Grant says. That is saying something, given he deals with hundreds of species constantly. He uses that example as the importance of fishing events to help marine life research, in providing a wide variety of fish to study.
Viskup says the cooperation of various agencies is important for all of them. She said there would be a lot of time she would be working on taking measurements (length, weight etc.) while Grant (or someone from a different agency) would be recording the data. For her purposes, Viskup often cuts a cube of about one inch from the meaty part of the fish behind the left pectoral fin.
That sample can then be tested for traces of mercury and other elements. She says tracking things like that is very important in edible species. Viskup says the DEQ also tests for selenium in the fish which according to some scientists may counteract some of the effects of any mercury traces, thus lowering the toxicity.
Results like that are then shared with the Environmental Protection Agency, in another example of interagency cooperation and reporting. The DEQ maintains an advisory of fish advisories on its website at www.deq.state.ms.us.
"We use these tournaments as opportunities and we get great cooperation from fisherman and organizers," Matt Hill, marine manager for the DMR said.
"They give us the fish, we take a little one inch cube for testing and give them their fish back. We try to do it as quickly as possible," Viskup said.
Big organized events offer the chance to study species that may otherwise not be available. A case in point is last week's deep sea fishing rodeo which took in a 219 pound 8 ounce swordfish. Although it wasn't officially entered in the rodeo it still had significance.
Viskup said the rodeo officials quickly called the Gulf Coast Research Lab at USM which promptly arranged to examine the swordfish's stomach contents.
"Where are you going to get stomach contents of a swordfish?" Grant asked, demonstrating the importance of these tournaments to environmental studies.
Hill said careful analysis of large samples of data over time gives researchers an idea of whether species are growing faster or slower or maturing for reproductive purposes.
Thus, events like the deep sea rodeo, billfish classic, Carl Leggett Memorial Fishing tournament, and numerous smaller competitions play a critical role in helping the state collect samples and save money in environmental studies of gulf coast marine life.