The pickled spanners are loose
A look at the St Lucia Marine Reserve surf-zone fish monitoring and tagging project.
Having seen the slogan, ‘The pickled spanners are loose’ on the shirts of tagging team members who have been lucky enough to crack the nod on a tagging trip with Bruce Mann and his team from ORI (Oceanographic Research Institute), I often wondered about the meaning – well, loosely translated, it means the ‘speckled snappers are wild’. These fish are one of the main target species in this tagging project and are awesome quarry; to truly appreciate that initial bite, one has to find out for oneself.
My turn eventually came when Bruce invited me to join him and his team on the February 2012 field trip. I accepted without hesitation, but after speaking to few of the old salts I began to wonder what I had let myself in for! ‘No nationals you have ever been to will be as hard as this trip,’ was one of the chirps I heard.However, none of this banter deterred me and with my bags packed, I embarked of one of the most enlightening and educational trips I have ever been on, so much so that I felt the need to share some information on the sterling work that Bruce and his team are doing and how it how ultimately benefits us as anglers.
The St Lucia Marine Reserve and its no-take sanctuary area form part of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park. The marine reserve was proclaimed in 1979 and for 20 years very little was done to measure the success of the sanctuary and its effectiveness in the protection of the shore angling fish species.
However, in November 2001, ORI’s surf-zone fish monitoring and tagging project was established and to date the project is still on-going. The main objectives of the project are:
- to monitor the recovery of the previously exploited area (Cape Vidal to Leven Point), especially by more resident fish species, both in terms of abundance and size;
- to use the no-take sanctuary as a benchmark for comparing with exploited areas;
- to study the movement behaviour of the fish species and monitor the ‘spill-over’ effect into the adjacent exploited areas;
- to use movement data (tag and recapture) to determine home range size and thus determine the size that no-take sanctuaries need to be in order to be effective.
The first thing that I learnt on the trip was that Bruce runs a really tight ship. Nobody is in any doubt as to the seriousness of the scientific research taking place; in fact, the whole organisation of the trip, from recording data to daily meals etc, runs like a well-oiled machine, which is important when you are fishing for a solid 12 hours a day for four days.
The team consists of eight anglers and two 4x4 vehicles with four anglers per vehicle. Each vehicle fishes for two days in the sanctuary (north of Leven Point) and two days in the previously exploited zone (south of Leven Point).
To ensure that the zones are thoroughly covered, anglers may not fish in the same spot for more than two hours. Careful record is kept of the time fished at each GPS point along the coast and all fish caught are recorded and measured. Fish over 30cm long are measured, tagged and released.
All fish are handled with the utmost care – a specially designed vinyl stretcher is used to land, carry and measure the fish, a wet cloth is placed over the fish’s eyes and only barbless hooks are used (anglers are also encouraged to use circle hooks where possible). These measures ensure the best chance of survival for the fish and thus the best chance of a recapture on future trips.
Angling in this area is completely different and it took me some time to adjust to it. Main target species are the resident reef fish that inhabit the rocky structure in this area. As mentioned, the speckled snapper is one of the main targets, but other reef species such as yellowbelly and catface rock cod, cave bass, lemonfish and white-barred rubberlip, to name a few, are also abundant.
Occasionally, bonus fish like kingfish (giant, blacktip, yellow-spotted, bluefin etc), largemouth queenfish and even the odd dusky kob make a welcome appearance. The chances of catching a big potato bass are also good and in fact on this trip we assisted a genetic study being conducted on this species and managed to fin-clip and tag five individuals of this protected species.
When things are quiet, the ever-present largespot pompano (wave garrick) is an awesome target species, especially on lighter tackle. Grey grunter also make their presence felt and in this area many of them are even big enough to tag.
Because of the nature of the terrain being fished and the chances of hooking a good-sized reef fish (or kingie), one cannot fish too light; a medium to medium heavy rod, 30–40 size multiplier reel and 0.47–0.55 nylon with at least an 0.80 leader is recommended. This trip, I almost exclusively fished with my New Age grinder, the Diawa Windcast Z5500, loaded with 50lb green Diawa tournament braid and a 7m-long 120lb braid leader. I matched this to the Diawa gold class spinning rod with a fitted bionic finger. I really enjoyed this outfit for this application and was pleasantly surprised at how well the grinder stood up to the hard pulling required to beat the bigger speckles.
I soon learnt that in this area a double hook trace is not really the best of ideas; most areas holding fish are really rocky and often the second hook will get stuck when reeling in or – worse – when into a fish. During the day I used a single hook trace consisting of a 6/0 Gamakatsu Octopus 4x hook with the barb squashed, a 5–6 power combo swivel with 0.60–0.80 fluoro snood (the water is generally crystal clear) and a 5–6oz nylon grab or teardrop sinker, depending on the wash. After dark, it is wise to fish with slightly heavier tackle – this provides more protection from the rocks and the darkness negates the visibility factor.
With regard to bait for this area: there can be no better than a fresh redeye; one mustn’t make the mistake of thinking that fresh bait doesn’t make a difference in a sanctuary – it does! Heads, small chops (mixed with chokka) and even whole redeyes are great. Other bait types like baby squid, chokka blobs, mackerel, prawn and good old sardine also produce good action.
I’m sure that my pride on this trip undoubtedly cost me a few bites; keeping a close eye on Bruce soon taught me that an educated short throw outfishes a full cast almost every time. Throwing just off the ledge, into small gaps in the reef and onto small banks with working water often produce the best results. The problem with the far shot is that the fish has far more chance of finding an obstacle to beat you on.
When you do get the bite, remember to maak vas and dontsa – if the fish takes even a few metres of line, it will often cut you off.
All of the above tricks and tactics produced good results in the areas we fished and will work well on all the Zululand rocky beaches – and even in southern Mozambique. Next time you are in Cape Vidal, perhaps take the time to walk a few kilometers north of the beach access ramp; you may be in for a pleasant surprise, and be sure to be on the lookout for tagged fish.
Not only did I learn a lot about fishing in the Cape Vidal area, I also learnt to appreciate the effectiveness and necessity of marine protected areas (MPAs) in ensuring the future of angling in our country. ORI’s work in the St Lucia MPA has shown that the no-take sanctuary area initially had a much greater abundance, biomass and diversity of shore angling species than the adjacent exploited area.I also learned how important it is to use care in handling fish you intend to release: to use a wet cloth and a stretcher, to work quickly and efficiently and to fish with a barbless hook. This is definitely the way forward for me.
After the implementation of the beach vehicle ban in January 2002, the area between Cape Vidal and Leven Point has shown a gradual recovery, and this is most evident in close proximity to the sanctuary area. This suggests that the sanctuary area has benefitted the adjacent area through spill-over of juvenile and adult fish and through seeding of fish eggs and larvae. Based on the many tagged fish that have been recaptured, important knowledge has been obtained regarding the small home-range size of many of our reef fish species.
Such resident behaviour, coupled with the slow growth rate of many of these species, makes them extremely vulnerable to overfishing. MPAs therefore perform a vital role in protecting these species and ensuring that populations in adjacent fished areas can be sustained.
I came away with a renewed respect for the work that the ORI team are doing to manage our ever-dwindling fish resources; I will definitely start tagging again to try and get my numbers up and make a contribution towards this important research.
To the rest of the team (Mike T, Stuart, Arthur, Roger, Mike K and Cas) – Bruce is indeed lucky to have such a dedicated crew and hopefully I can match you in numbers of tagged fish next time (nudge nudge, wink wink)!