I stand thigh-deep in warm bay water, seining net clutched in my hands. I can feel the drag of the current against the fabric as I march, slowly and steadily, toward the shore. A man named Dennis Bartow holds the other end of the 30-foot net, slogging his way toward the beach with me. It’s perfect weather: sunny enough to warm my baseball cap, with a gentle breeze that smells of salt.
“Someone grab the middle of the net!” Bartow shouts as we trudge into the sand. One of the other three volunteers darts forward and grips the center of the net. Together, we heave it onto the shore.
“OK, and... let go,” Bartow instructs. The volunteer, a man wearing a Delaware Center for the Inland Bays T-shirt and muddy Crocs, complies.
Suddenly, the shore is another world, sparkling and glittering in the vivid sunshine. As the volunteer releases the net, hundreds of fish slide onto the sand, wriggling and silver as moonlight. For a moment, I just stare, watching the flash of scales and the undulation of delicate fins and tails. It’s dream-like.
“Alright, start putting them in the buckets!” Bartow prompts. I dive in. Crouching in the sand, I reach into the piles of fish and begin to snatch them up. They squirm and thrash in my hands, but I’m determined to get them to the safety of our water-filled buckets.
Working fast, the other volunteers and I pull flailing fish from algae clumps and netting. A few small children who were playing on the beach stand beside me, watching curiously. Bartow, eager to educate the newcomers, talks about the species of fish as they eagerly begin to help putting them in buckets. Blue crabs shake their claws at the sky as they scuttle off into the surf, and we count and size them.
“One medium! Two mediums!”
I’ve never participated in a fish survey before, but most of the other volunteers working with me are regulars. The Delaware Center for the Inland Bays (CIB) conducts these surveys twice a month, carefully measuring the health of 17 different sites around the three inland bays (the Rehoboth, the Assawoman and the Little Assawoman).
Since 2011, eight different groups have been sent out by the CIB to conduct the surveys. Dennis Bartow, who is a member of all eight of the groups, leads the charge as we heft the buckets toward a tiny boardwalk nearby.
It’s now that the measuring and identifying begins. Bartow lined up two large wooden measuring tools on the boardwalk. Another volunteer and I grabbed each of the fish, measured them on the wood, called out their species and length, and tossed them back into the water.
When I arrived at the beach that morning, I had no idea which fish was which, or what types of fish lived in the Delaware bays. By the time I was finished, I could tell with a glance which fish were white mullets, striped killifish, hogchokers, bluefish, flounder, silversides and more.
I went to three different sites that day, and at each one, different types of fish would surface. Each beach was drastically different from the next, and the surprise of what came out of our nets was thrilling. Outwardly, the beaches looked relatively identical. But once we dipped our nets in the water, all bets were off. After that experience, I felt closer to the wildlife, and I knew more about my home and the creatures that live here.
And educating volunteers like me is a valuable part of the job. The CIB’s surveys tell us how much of a certain type of fish is surviving certain conditions, when good fishing/crabbing seasons will occur and how healthy our bays are. But they also arm us with knowledge about our own ecosystem — information that we can use to better protect the environment. The fish surveys are entirely volunteer-operated, and they teach those volunteers what is happening to their aquatic neighbors.
This experience is open to anyone who wants to take part and learn. It’s an incredibly important and educational scientific encounter, and it’s completely open to the public. Not only is this enriching and fun, it’s one of the most available ways to be a part of the natural community and to care for our bays in Delaware.
When I left the beaches that day, wet, sandy and smelling slightly of fish, I couldn’t have been happier. I’d learned, integrated myself into the environment and helped take part in something big. What began as an eventful morning had transformed into something much more meaningful.
For more information on the Delaware Center for the Inland Bays, check out www.inlandbays.org. For information on how take part in a fish survey, click on the tab at the top of the page that says “Projects & Issues,” and scroll down until you see the section labeled “Fish Surveys.”
There’s much more to do, however, and the CIB website is loaded with valuable information about our bays, the problems they face and how you can help, as well as programs and events you can take part in. Although Annual Fish Survey Kickoff/Orientation meetings are held each April, you can still sign up to help out anytime.
Floundering for a way to help out without getting wet? Click the “Donate” button at the top and become a friend of the bays!