North Carolina winters can be surprisingly severe, posing a danger to some fish. A phenomenon called “cold stunning” can actually kill fish en masse. Thanks to an NC State doctoral student, researchers are gaining a better understanding of how to manage and protect one species, the spotted sea trout, popular with fishing enthusiasts.
The work has earned the student, Tim Ellis, a top award from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: the prestigious Walter B. Jones Sr. Award.
Ellis began working on the research project four years ago in collaboration with three biology professors in NC State’s Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology program. They use an advanced tagging technique to research the movement and mortality of spotted sea trout.
During a cold winter, the fish may become lethargic, often unaware of their environment, and then float to the surface where they become easy prey for avian predators such as gulls and eagles.
Ellis says some cold stuns are so severe, the story makes local news. Such was the case in December 2010 on the Pungo River near the town of Belhaven. Because so many trout were suspected of being impacted statewide, managers closed the fishery for the first time.
Ellis hopes the tagging research, which concludes in August, will reveal precisely how cold stunning impacts the spotted sea trout population and other fish that are susceptible to cold winters. For Ellis the NOAA award confirms he’s doing the right thing, but he knows there’s more to be done. “Hopefully my work will be a good jumping off point for further research on this topic.”
His research is funded by the state’s coastal recreational fishing license program and North Carolina Sea Grant’s Fishery Resource Grant program.