contributed by Kerry Finley

tubesnouting 1

That was an illuminating evening. I’m sure some residents around Roberts Bay wondered what the strange bobbings of lights on the water and the whoops and squeals of delight was all about, last night.

Earlier in the day Environment Canada had issued a weather warning with rain and strong winds . So the prospects of joining the UVIc Ocean Students Society to conduct seining surveys was looking dismal as I donned my chestwaders, and arrived at appointed meeting place at the Bufflehead Kiosk on Ardwell. The students pulled up exactly on time at eight, and in spite of invitations for volunteers, I realized that we were going to be all of three and I was going to have to pull my weight.  Ricky, Erin and the old geezer of the bay.

Ricky explained the seining technique and the study protocol which was to focus on “forage fishes” in eelgrass communities. Though I’ve had a fair amount of experience in experimental fisheries, seining was not among them, though once long ago, I worked with villagers on the coast of Tanzania in reefing in huge beach seines.

And so we set out, in cold drizzle, with our miniature mess of chain and floats.  The tide was low so we had a slow slog over mudflats to the edge of the eelgrass beds, dragging the unwieldy mess with one foot locked into the lead line. Ricky acknowledged that it was only his second experience with the technique so that it might be a little awkward.

Erin bemoaned the lack of a GPS to guide us to the sampling patch. At some other time it might have prompted a lecture about the value of local traditional knowledge, however I was more concerned about  the intense cold that gripped my nether region. I’d neglected to put on long underwear. Water was tipping into the back of  Ricky’s chest waders, in a featureless void, when a small patch of  eelgrass was finally discovered and encircled. Then followed the intense haul all the way back to shore, as I recalled the rhythmic chanting of my Tanzanian friends, and thought of the enormous hydraulic forces operating on a baleen whale’s mouth.

The haul yielded a bonanza of colourful crustaceans like blue “brokenback” shrimp, and a remarkable variety and abundance of fish, though none were the designated “forage fishes” the study was targeting.  I might have protested the designation but was too amazed to see, for the first time in my long experience, the abundance of Tubesnouts and Pipefishes – well-named strange creatures – along with the expected catch of sculpins, gunnels, and shiner perch. The shouts of glee were from Erin when she shone her headlamp on the cute little spiny  lumpsucker. Ricky was transfixed as we observed the pencil-like forms of  the Tubesnouts in the holding tub, with their tiny tails, hovering, apparently defenseless without speed or armour, except for their cryptic markings and the brilliant green of the Pipefish.  In marked contrast to the other critters that evaded our dip nets, squirmed or presented sharp spines, the Tubesnouts  allowed themselves to be sieved like sticks and dumped into the trough for measurements.  They looked prehistoric like the Spiny Sticklebacks  that accompanied them.

pipefish 1

Alas, there were none of the targeted “forage fishes” even though I noted that large numbers of juvenile herring had been assembling every day on the southeast lee shore ( we were on the northwest exposed shore).  Maybe Fyke nets with acoustic sensors could work to monitor the diurnal movements of these species, I wondered. Maybe we need to expand our definition of what constitutes forage. Hello Mr. Green Tanaid. That’s Ta-NY’-id.

It dawned on me why the supreme predators – Hooded, Red-breasted Mergansers, Horned and Red-necked Grebes, and the Cormorants – hunt where they do.  I felt like a kid again, although the third haul was beyond my thermal tolerance, and even the students were getting weary of bent-over measuring.

After we parted, I slip-slided back around the bay over thick windrows of sea lettuce (i.e. on the lee shore), the fog from my breath diffusing my torch and causing  one painful stumble. Back home, beyond bed time, I picked up Lamb and Edgell’s Coastal fishes of the Pacific Northwest with renewed interest.

Aulorhynchidae – Tubesnouts. Alaska to Baja, habitat eelgrass, usually near surface in school, sometimes in dense schools offshore. Only two known species of ancient heritage going back 35 million year.

And this apt description : “ a stretched out, armourless stickleback” WHY ? What’s their secret  ?

All in all, an illuminating experience. Many thanks to Ricky and Erin.




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