Nov 2, 2009

Bag 'em and tag 'em

Last week we spent a few days in deep Louisiana at its southernmost port. Port Fourchon (pronounced, Foo-shon), wasn't exactly what I expected. As you drive up to it at night, it's lit up like a Christmas tree. You're thinking you're driving up to a fishing town, but you discover that it's an industrial metropolis. Helicopters always buzzing overhead, you're surrounded by the offshore oil industry. Apparently, this port supplies 16-18% of the US oil supply and produces over 90% of the Gulf of Mexico's deepwater oil.

When you drive into that port, you also realize that this is man country. Offshore oil workers, commercial fisherman, crew boats. I asked the captain of the shrimp boat that I was aboard:

"How many women do you think there are around here?"

He gazed over the Port Fourchon commercial docks.

"Maybe 5, and you'd probably have to pay for 4 of them."

This area of Louisiana is also a fishing mecca. Our mission was to go offshore to catch king mackerel and tag them with pop-up archival satellite tags to estimate their winter migrations. First off, let me show you the King of the Mackerels, courtesy of Diane Peebles.

Satellite tags have been in use for several years now, tracking movements of larger animals. Sea turtles, sharks, marlin, tuna, swordfish, and whales have been the guinea pigs of early satellite tagging studies. Now that technology has gotten things a little smaller, we can now attach the tags to relatively smaller pelagic fish like kings.

So here's what a satellite tag looks like:

If you think it looks expensive, it is. It's like strapping a $5,000 check to a fish and watching him swim off with it.

The tags log temperature, depth, and light intensity. Interestingly, the light data can be used to calculate latitude and longitude. After a predetermined amount of time, the tag detaches itself from the animal, floats to the surface, and then says hello to the satellite. The tag uploads the data to the satellite, and then it magically beams it to your email. That's right, magic...mind blowingly awesome magic.

Of course, bad things do happen. The animal can die, get eaten, or the tag can fall out. You just have to cross your fingers and hope he makes it. And if any of you find one of our tags, we'll give you $500 for it.

So to keep it short, we made it a few miles offshore in the shrimp boat. The seas were rough, but the boat took it well. We managed to catch, tag, and release 5 king mackerel with the sat tags. Things happened pretty quick once the fish got on board, so taking pictures was the last thing on my mind. Here's the only shot I got of us tagging.

The most important part of the process was to keep the fish as healthy as possible so it had a better chance of survival. King mackerel can stress or die pretty quickly if left out of the water even for a short time. As we released the tagged fish back into the water, we tried to encourage them to get moving again; so we would yell, "SWIM!! SWIM!!" "GO, GO, GO!!" "SWIM, YOU #$%&@*!".

I think that helped.

So kings, keep swimming. Send us a postcard from Mexico.


  1. Ahhh, the mighty and majestic king mackerel. Wish I could have been there.

    -Small and bossy

  2. ****From the Peanut Gallery ****
    The seas were rough that day.......Easy Big....
    Anyway,you know the rest....... ;-)
    I know one thing, "I work like you fish and I fish like you work". We have to be related.
    Wouldn't it be cheaper to give the "Kings" a Waterproof Sat phone. Over "seas" calls are much cheaper these days...
    Ms T. says "One with a camera would be cool also"! At least, more fotos would be taken!
    Swim Kings, Swim! Hola, Hola! Can you hear me now!

    Always, proud and amazed.
    Mom and Buster

  3. Check out these guys for less expensive PSAT tags;

  4. Thanks for the link Thomas. These are the ones we used:

    I like the solar power. Are the desertstar tags about the same size? Hydrodynamic drag, size, and weight are pretty important for tagging these smaller fish. Smaller tags could mean better survivability. This is a pilot study, so potentially we could go with a different tag if the funding is there.

  5. We're going to have a party when the first satelite emails you.

  6. I'm going to catch one of those tagged fish in my kayak.