GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

July 28, 2009

Great Annual Fish Count sets records

More species than ever found off Cape Ann shores

By Cameron Kittle

With a record number of divers identifying a record number of species, it seems Cape Ann's Great Annual Fish Count this past weekend proved greater than ever, organizers say.

Fish aficionados and diving volunteers swam deep underwater in nine different Cape Ann locations as part of the Great Annual Fish Count on Saturday, where divers search for fish and identify as many species as they can.

Cape Ann's Great Annual Fish Count, hosted this year by the New England Aquarium Dive Club and the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF), is the largest of its kind in the country. On Saturday, the event reported record numbers across the board.

Bob Michelson, the New England coordinator for the Great Annual Fish Count, said there were 119 divers conducting 140 total dives and they observed 45 different species. All three numbers were records for the eight-year-old local event.

"We've never had this many divers; we've never had this many species," Michelson said. "It's a good indicator that the environment is in improving condition over years past.

"Either we got lucky, or the divers are getting better at identifying fish," he said. "We had 238 eyes looking at fish. We've never had that many before. This (event) is expanding. I expect it to grow every year."

Michelson said four or five species were found that had never been observed before, including the Atlantic wolf fish and the Atlantic torpedo ray.

He said the wolf fish was a "very rare occurrence," despite that it is native to the Gulf of Maine. He said the torpedo ray is a "huge trash-barrel-sized fish that gives out tremendous electricity" that was hardly ever seen on Cape Ann up until a few years ago.

The divers could be found all across Cape Ann, at Folly Cove, Cathedral Rocks, Pebble Beach, Lane's Cove, Halibut Shores, Back Beach, Old Garden Beach, Plum Cove, and Stage Fort Park. All dives began at 8 a.m. Saturday and yielded great results.

Steven Levy, 52, a Marblehead resident who dove at Folly Cove, said he saw about a half dozen skate, a striped bass, some cunner fish, and a lot of lobsters. He said he's been a part of the Great Annual Fish Count since 2000 and enjoyed this year's event because it was a nice, sunny day and he was able to see plenty of different fish.

"I've never seen that many skates," he said. "It seemed like everywhere I looked there were skates."

While Levy said he has some experience in diving — he's a member of the North Shore Frogmen's Club Inc., which has been diving around Cape Ann since 1958 — Michelson said that he's been trying to recruit and train more divers to participate.

Michelson has been training divers in fish identification for eight years, and this year he traveled to diving clubs in Weymouth, Chelmsford and Atkinson, N.H., to teach fish identification training in hopes that some of their divers would come out for the Great Annual Fish Count. The decision paid off, and Michelson said all three clubs made strong showings at this year's event.

"We had an incredible number of divers and everybody was professional — they left the beaches cleaner than how they found them," Michelson said. "We police ourselves; it was an incredibly successful day."

The nonprofit event requires no entry fee but offers a wide variety of prizes for dive lovers — including this year's grand prize: a stay, drive and dive package for one diver for a seven-day trip to the Golden Reef Inn in Bonaire, Netherlands Antilles, just off the Venezuelan coast, valued at $725.

"The incentive is pretty high," Michelson said. "We gave out $8,541 worth of free dive gear and travel, and there's no entry fee."

The main idea of the event isn't about prizes though, it's about discovery. This is a chance for anyone who knows how to dive to jump in the water on a nice day and try to put their own fingerprint in the scientific record books around the North Shore, Michelson said.

"The catch phrase for what we do is that we refer to ourselves at citizen scientists," he said. "This data isn't just like 45 different species of fish, it's about how many were observed in these nine locations around Cape Ann."

Cameron Kittle can be reached at gt_reporter@gloucestertimes.com