Sea Grant Aquaculture Research Program 2010: Working with New England Communities to Restore Winter Flounder Populations - Developing Pilot Scale Stock Enhancement Programs (NSI)

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Project Type: 
Research
Project Number: 
RI/CFR-17 NSI Grant
Inception Date: 
2010
Completion Date: 
2011

Participants:

Elizabeth Fairchild UNH - Department of Biological Sciences Principal Investigator
Ken La Valley UNH - Cooperative Extension Co-Principal Investigator
Warren Doty Martha's Vineyard/Dukes County Fishermen's Association Collaborator
Nathan Rennels UNH - Department of Biological Sciences Technician
Bret Stearns Wampanoag Tribe of Aquinnah Collaborator
Kimberly Little UNH - Department of Biological Sciences Technician
Kristin Garabedian UNH - Department of Biological Sciences Technician

Students Involved:

Leanna Giordano UNH - Department of Biological Sciences
Mackenzie Nine UNH - Department of Biological Sciences
Marcella Andrews UNH - Department of Biological Sciences
David Bailey UNH - Department of Biological Sciences
Anna Gerber-Williams UNH - Department of Biological Sciences
Sarah Geromini UNH - Department of Biological Sciences
Katherine Rafuse UNH - Department of Biological Sciences
Elise Koob UNH - Department of Biological Sciences
Bethany Wolfert UNH - Department of Biological Sciences
Nicole Wong UNH - Department of Biological Sciences
Danielle Nichols UNH - Department of Biological Sciences
Samantha Jacobus UNH - Department of Biological Sciences
Jillian Price UNH - Department of Biological Sciences
Rebecca Wright UNH - Department of Biological Sciences
Joseph Hollenbeck UNH - Department of Biological Sciences
Ethan Ely UNH - Department of Biological Sciences
Joelle Mangelinckx UNH - Department of Biological Sciences
Shelley Edmundson UNH - Department of Biological Sciences
Erica Richard UNH - Department of Biological Sciences
Sarah Murphy UNH - Department of Biological Sciences
Abstract: 

Biomass of winter flounder Pseudopleuronectes americanus, a target species of both recreational and commercial fisheries, is at an all-time low, and due to new unprecedented regulations, the largest of the three stocks is closed to all fishing activities in federal waters. Winter flounder population recovery could be expedited by enhancement (Waters 1996; Le Francois et al. 2002), and experimental restocking studies have been conducted since 1996 by scientists at the University of New Hampshire (UNH). The goal of past projects has not been to initiate large-scale releases. Instead, the “responsible approach” (Blankenship & Leber 1995) has been applied to develop the processes needed to successfully enhance winter flounder by answering key questions in the event that large-scale restocking efforts occur. These experiments have shown that:

1) Winter flounder can be successfully cultured, tagged, conditioned, and released into the wild, and

2) Released winter flounder then “behave” much like wild fish in that there are similarities in habitat utilization, movements, home range, growth and diet.

Unfortunately due to the lack of adequate space at UNH for large-scale, on-shore aquaculture, rearing the magnitude of hatchery fish to fully test the efficacy of restocking winter flounder has not been possible.

The possibility that restocking winter flounder could help the diminished wild stocks has elicited interest from several New England communities. Of these, officials and fishermen from the towns of Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. sought advice from Fairchild and UNH. Due to their character (eagerness, motivation, diligence, well-organized), the towns’ natural resources (historically high winter flounder populations, high quality winter flounder nursery areas, existing wild spawning winter flounder stock), and the location of nearby aquaculture facilities capable of producing enough juvenile winter flounder for releases and willing to participate in this project (Wampanoag Tribe Hatchery ), these communities tested winter flounder enhancement strategies.This project initiated a regional winter flounder restocking effort following the “responsible approach” guidelines (Blankenship and Leber 1995) in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. This project is a regional collaborative effort that includes fishermen, scientists, and managers who engage in research to find ways to protect and enhance the winter flounder and its fishery.

Objectives: 
Year 1: Train regional project participants and conduct ecosystem analyses to determine appropriate stocking strategies for winter flounder in estuaries of Martha’s Vineyard, Mass.
 
Year 2: Conduct pilot-scale releases of winter flounder in estuaries of Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., and evaluate the impacts.
 
These objectives will be met through a training workshop for all project personnel and instructional materials will be produced. Through ecosystem analyses, the temporal and spatial abundance of wild winter flounder populations, the size class distribution of winter flounder, and the spatial use of the estuaries by different size classes of winter flounder will be determined. The temporal and spatial abundance of potential predators of juvenile winter flounder and the availability of potential prey of juvenile winter flounder in each estuary will be described. Recommendations regarding winter flounder stockings - optimal release season(s), site(s), and size-at-release – will be made based on the ecosystem analyses. Hatcheries will be prepared for winter flounder aquaculture so that responsible production techniques for raising fish fit for enhancement are adapted.
 
In Year 2, the hatcheries will produce and project participants will tag up to 75,000 juvenile winter flounder in Mass. for pilot-scale releases. Two different grow-out (tank vs. cage culture) and two different release strategies (floating cage acclimated vs. direct release) will be tested and compared and the overall successfulness of the releases will be evaluated by estimating the mortality (survival) of released fish, describing the diet transition in released fish, and studying the movements of released fish. The impacts of the project will be determined through a second workshop open to all project participants, scientists, regulators, and interested parties, and a summary proceeding will be published through Sea Grant. Final reports, manuscripts, and articles will be published and disseminated to stakeholders. Final workshops will occur in Conn. and N.Y. to share this technology with interested Long Island Sound communities, explain how the Mass. model can work for Long Island Sound, identify future partners, and begin the process of building long-term working relationships.
 
If this restocking strategy is successful, this will not be just another scientific research exercise - this model will be applicable to other New England fishing communities to expedite the recovery of winter flounder populations. The goal is that Martha’s Vineyard implements responsible winter flounder enhancement programs, and that it becomes the model (demonstration site) for other coastal communities, states and regulators.
Methodology: 
Research Work Plans and Milestones
 
Year 1: Train at least 12 regional project participants and conduct ecosystem analyses to determine appropriate stocking strategies for winter flounder in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. and East Hampton, N.Y. estuaries.
 
Specific Goals for Year 1:
 
1. Hold a training workshop for all project personnel and produce instructional materials.
 
2. Conduct ecosystem analyses in each region to determine appropriate stocking strategies for winter flounder by:
 
a. Evaluating the temporal and spatial abundance of wild winter flounder populations in each estuary.
 
b. Describing the size class distribution of winter flounder in each estuary.
 
c. Mapping the spatial use of the estuaries by different size classes of winter flounder.
 
d. Evaluating the temporal and spatial abundance of potential predators of juvenile winter flounder populations in each estuary.
 
e. Measuring the availability of potential prey of juvenile winter flounder in each estuary.
 
3. Make recommendations regarding winter flounder stockings based on ecosystem analyses.
 
a. Identify which season(s) and site(s) show promise for winter flounder stockings.
 
b. Based on the best stocking season/site combination, determine the most successful size-at-release for cultured winter flounder.
 
4. Prepare hatcheries for winter flounder aquaculture. Ensure hatcheries adapt responsible production techniques for raising fish fit for enhancement.
 
Year 2: Conduct pilot-scale releases of 50,000 winter flounder in both Martha’s Vineyard, MA and East Hampton, NY estuaries and evaluate impact.
 
Specific Goals for Year 2:
 
1. Initiate production of winter flounder on Martha’s Vineyard.
 
2. Produce and tag up to 50,000 juvenile winter flounder in each region for pilot-scale releases.
 
3. Test and compare two different release strategies in each region and evaluate the overall successfulness of the releases by:
 
a. Estimating the mortality (survival) of released fish.
 
b. Describing the diet transition in released fish.
 
c. Studying the movements of released fish.
 
4. Determine the impacts of the project through a final workshop.
 
5. Disseminate results to stakeholders.
Rationale: 
This project will further coldwater marine finfish aquaculture and stock enhancement in New England. It will resuscitate one aquaculture facility (the hatchery owned by the Wampanoag Tribe of Aquinnah) and utilize a second (Multi Aquaculture Systems Inc.) to produce as many as 100,000 winter flounder on a commercial scale. By the end of Year 2, 100,000 hatchery-reared tagged juvenile winter flounder will be released in N.Y. and Mass. coastal areas. In addition, at least 12 people will be trained in aquaculture and responsible stock enhancement practices. These people also will be trained in the field to monitor stocking impacts to the environment. A minimum of 8 undergraduate students will gain experience in stock enhancement science and data analysis.
 
However, the benefits from this project may be even greater than supporting and educating participants in these small communities. There is the potential of providing a safe, sustainable winter flounder source, increasing the flounder population, and thus rebuilding the fishery. By demonstrating success in pilot-scale stockings of winter flounder, a viable fishery recovery management option is shown. By successfully enhancing winter flounder, stocks could be rebuilt quicker than by just using traditional management techniques (i.e., stricter regulations). If winter flounder stocks recovered faster, then a critical species of the western North Atlantic waters would be conserved. With proper management, there would be increased product yield and economic benefits to the fishing industries and communities, as well as contributing to the sustainability of the species. If this restocking strategy is successful, this will not be just another scientific research exercise - this model will be applicable to other New England fishing communities to expedite the recovery of winter flounder populations.
 
The northeastern region of the U.S. has a very limited aquaculture industry, in large part because the techniques for large-scale production of cold-water species have not yet been developed. Winter flounder is an excellent candidate for both aquaculture and stock enhancement. Although this species has been reared at a small laboratory scale for decades, and the basic culture techniques are known, there has been very limited large-scale production. One of the benefits of the proposed research is that it teams the leading academic winter flounder researchers with an existing commercial aquaculture company and provides the framework for another. These partnerships will develop and demonstrate the large-scale production of winter flounder. Outreach activities of the project will ensure that the culture techniques we develop will be widespread, and these, combined with a detailed analysis of production costs, could lead to the development of a winter flounder aquaculture industry.
Accomplishments: 
2013

Database created for ecosystem survey data from Martha’s Vineyard, Mass.

N.H. Sea Grant-funded researchers created an extensive database for information collected during ecosystem surveys in two ponds on Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. Data include finfish, macroinvertebrate, epi- and benthic fauna and water quality measurements. These data fill in the existing gaps in data collected by the Mass. Department of Marine Fisheries during their estuarine surveys, thus providing a more complete understanding of aquatic ecosystems on the island.

Stock enhancement program developed for winter flounder
N.H. Sea Grant-funded researchers designed a stock enhancement program to improve winter flounder populations on Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., while ensuring the ecosystem remained healthy. This program has been presented to help train communities interested in adopting these methods, thus increasing the likelihood that careful ecosystem-based management practices will be utilized in the future.

2012

NHSG Researchers Determine Best Release Strategy for Winter Flounder Stock Enhancement Efforts

Current winter flounder populations are at an all-time low near Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. NHSG-funded researchers worked with municipalities, commercial fishermen, tribal members, students and natural resource managers to determine if stocking hatchery-reared fish into the estuaries would help restore winter flounder populations more quickly. In 2012, researchers conducted two methods of release to determine which would result in higher flounder survival rates: some of the winter flounder were released into the estuary directly from the hatchery, while the rest were placed in underwater cages for two days to acclimate to the estuary conditions prior to release. Winter flounder acclimated in the underwater cages tended to remain in the release area longer than the hatchery-raised fish, perhaps indicating that more of the cage-conditioned fish survived after the release. Results from this research will inform future stocking efforts to improve the likelihood of success.

NHSG-funded Efforts Lead to Mass-production of Winter Flounder for Stock Enhancement
Fishermen and resource managers are seeking ways to improve winter flounder populations in waters off of Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. Stock enhancement may be a viable method to reach that goal, but local fishermen and resource managers needed additional expertise to begin those efforts. After renovations of an old shellfish hatchery on the island were complete, NHSG-funded researchers trained project volunteers in 2012 to take the lead on aquaculture tasks including fish spawning, broodstock management, larviculture and live feeds culture. Based on this training, project volunteers produced and raised 4,310 hatchery-reared juvenile flounder for eventual stocking in an estuary on the island. These efforts demonstrated the ability to start a stock enhancement project in a community with little or no aquaculture expertise and successfully mass-produce winter flounder in a hatchery setting.

Tagging Study Established to Determine Effectiveness of Stock Enhancement Strategy for Winter Flounder
In 2012, NHSG-funded researchers worked with volunteers and students to establish a tagging study to determine the effectiveness of stock enhancement on Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. Juvenile winter flounder that were raised in the hatchery were tagged and later released into an estuary on the island. Researchers developed posters, mailings and gave presentations to fishermen on the island to encourage them to return any tagged flounder they catch in their dredges. In addition, a monthly monetary lottery was established to increase tag reporting participation. The results from this tagging effort will help inform resource managers about the effectiveness of winter flounder stock enhancement efforts.

NHSG Publication Highlights Winter Flounder Research Results
Winter flounder populations in waters near Martha’s Vineyard have declined dramatically in recent years. Using Sea Grant funds, a UNH researcher conducted studies to determine the most effective stock enhancement technique for that area. NHSG produced a four-page publication in 2012, “Bringing winter flounder back to Martha’s Vineyard through community engagement,” summarizing this research that was distributed to stakeholders, project collaborators and potential future funding agencies to increase awareness of the project, highlight its accomplishments, and document the need for further studies. This publication will also deliver important information for other communities and organizations interested in using stock enhancement to help improve populations of flounder and other related species.

2011

 

At the end of the first year, this project is on track in all activities. The first workshop was held to train project participants and a manual was written for them. Topics at the workshop included the project logistics, responsible approach, winter flounder enhancement research at UNH, and winter flounder aquaculture.The manual covers how to culture winter flounder (including rearing live feeds), and explains the rationale behind establishing a responsible approach for enhancement programs, and how to determine optimal release strategies.

 
A year long ecosystem survey was conducted in Menemsha and Lagoon ponds in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. Those data will be used to provide optimal release strategies for winter flounder stocking strategies. Currently the data are being analyzed. The extensive database being created from the ecosystem surveys will be available to other users to complement other projects in the context of ecosystem-based management. For instance, neither Lagoon nor Menemsha Pond is included in the state (Mass. Division of Marine Fisheries) estuarine surveys. Data from this project will fill in missing areas in the state surveys. Also, the data will be utilized by the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group and towns in their shellfish stocking programs. The EPA have requested data sharing for their project on invasive species (tunicates) in Menemsha Pond and how they alter food web dynamics in shallow coastal systems. In addition, the overall objective of designing a responsible stock enhancement program is to utilize spatial planning and consider all users as well as the receiving ecosystem so as not to negatively affect anything. Teaching and training communities about this approach increases the likelihood that careful ecosystem-based management practices will be utilized.
 
A lease was signed between the Dukes County/Martha’s Vineyard Fishermen’s Association and the Wampanoag Tribe of Aquinnah in Nov. 2011. The Fishermen’s Association promptly began all hatchery renovations to prepare the facility for 2012 winter flounder production.
 
Due to the many outreach activities associated with this project (meetings, presentations, media articles) combined with the partnership both formally and informally between UNH, the Martha’s Vineyard Fishermen’s Association, and the Wampanoag Tribe of Aquinnah, there has been an increased awareness and understanding of the science behind marine stock enhancement and why stocking programs need to be implemented “responsibly.” In addition, enthusiasm for this project has been epic; volunteers from all sectors have contributed substantially. Shellfish constables from Tisbury, Oak Bluffs, Chilmark, and Aquinnah have helped conduct the ecosystem surveys and in many instances, used town resources (boats, trucks, personnel) to do so. Commercial fishermen and tribal members and staff (Dept. of Natural Resources) have regularly been involved in the surveys, too. In addition, carpenters and fishermen have helped with the renovations in the Tribal hatchery. It is evident that the communities of Martha’s Vineyard are in support of this research and are willing to contribute whatever it takes to help restore winter flounder populations.
A blog was created by N.H. Sea Grant for project. This site is maintained by UNH personnel and is used as a way to inform interested parties of this research, as well as for project participants to post notices, news, and images. http://winterflounderenhancement.blogspot.com/

Publications

Available from the National Sea Grant Library (use NHU number to search) or NH Sea Grant

Report

  • Walsh, M. and E. Fairchild (2013). Flatfish conditioning for stock enhancement. The global aquaculture advocate 16(6):48-49, November/December 2013.

Thesis/Dissertation

  • Walsh, M. (2012). Flatfish stock enhancement: examining conditioning strategies to promote success. Doctoral dissertation, University of New Hampshire.

Manual

  • Determining stocking strategies and culturing winter flounder ("Pseudopleuronectes americanus") for enhancement programs (2010). Elizabeth Fairchild and Nathan Rennels.

Information Sheet

  • Bringing winter flounder back to Martha's Vineyard through community engagement (2013). Elizabeth Fairchild.