July 21st, 2003

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Mass Murderers!
Captain Scud Yates, Fort Walton Beach, Florida

Sandy and I had no intention of delivering two thousand dead fish to Jim Tucker, but we did. He wanted them bad...so, he got them bad. We may be forever known as "fish killers." Maybe we shouldn't dwell on the dead ones but those we were able to get to him alive. There were about 6000 of them. But, will anyone remember us for that?

This episode in my "after Saudi" life started a long time ago - before Saudi. About the time I was leaving in '95, Tucker and a biologist named Dennis Peters were cooking up a plan to raise and release redfish into the wild. I watched this go on back here on visits and in Bill Campbell's writings and always wanted to be a part of it.

Redfish are a type of "Drum" that live in the Gulf and roam the bays here. They grow up to 50 pounds or so. They have a distinctive spot on their side near the tail and a pink/beige/gold color. They are a sport fish only, now recovering, as the famous "blackened redfish" craze of New Orleans nearly wiped them out - along with over-fishing, declining habitat and spreading pollution.

They are not fished commercially now. They can't be sold anymore. Sport fishermen are limited to a couple a day and then only between something like 18 to 28 inches. The rules change every year but they grow fast and right now are on the increase, especially in the larger sizes. Tucker and Dennis have helped that a bit and will do more. I recently watched one cruise by me while standing in knee-deep water fly-casting. It was so big I got my #13-pound leader out of the way so I would not lose the fly.

While I was in Saudi the two fish farmers, in the only private citizen program we know of in Florida, raised, tagged and released 1500 six-inch redfish. There is little known about most pelagic fish raising and almost nothing past the fry stage, especially the redfish. Gulf Power releases millions of little fish but does not get them past the mortality rates associated with the two inch to adult stages of life. Gulf Power raises and releases fish because the nuc plants kill millions of fish in the cooling turbines associated with their operations.

Tucker's excuse for this passion is that he has eaten an estimated 25,000 fish in his 63 years and he wants to repay nature. I am sure Gulf Power does it out of the same sort of conscience too. Actually Jim loves any animal and especially babies. He gets more bang for the buck with this scale of project than rescuing some litter of kittens or motherless hatch of ducklings (these he does regularly, along with saving anything that crawls which is hurting). This action come from a retired Army Ranger of fearsome reputation as a trained killer. He also has a boat marina with space to keep the fish pens...giving up four large boat slips to support the pens he built.

Dennis has a passion also and a history of raising fish. Ichthyologist is his label and energy his tools. He works for a local contractor now (the State before, until they decided not to have a biologist on our bay) in doing environmental studies, I think for keeping the US government within the EPA laws. This side effort goes beyond just maintaining what is left of nature and into rebuilding it. He, like Tucker, donates all that goes into this.

The rest of us are bit players and help when we can. Sandy Zevin got drawn into this at the last moment because he has a big trailer and truck to pull it. The 8000 fish, due to delays, had grown to a size that they and their support system reached two tons in weight. And the season for starting an effort like this was waning. Sandy and I might have eaten a bunch of fish in our years judging by our girths. Sandy did say he would do most anything to help Tucker.

I just happened into this out of interest and offering to keep Dennis entertained on the fish hauling trip to and from Crystal River. Besides, my mom would approve of this action. She lives in California but cares about all things living and most things I do. I have no special talents to add to this program but have always wanted to be involved with helping mother nature. My fly-fishing could also be affected in a good way.

Every time Dennis set up a run a hurricane came along to delay it. The first batch was one inch long, perfect for a pickup with some coolers to carry them, when "Earl" caused the hatchery to release them before flooding over into the fresh water ditches. The second batch was that size when "Georges" started its' binge of damage. They grew to two and half inches in the two weeks it took to get a third trip plan together and the water here in the bay to get back down.

In the end, Dennis could not get free from work leaving Sandy and I to the trip. He did set up the truckload and the tanks (borrowed from local seafood sellers) with support systems. Gulf Seafood and American Seafood were very interested and supportive in this effort. This could only help them on the long run.

Sandy and I took off at 0300. It was to be about six hours each way. The drive down was pleasant. Sandy had to be coaxed into sharing many of his life's flying stories but I got some out of him. His truck is very comfortable and well appointed. He is a long distant boat-hauler, among other things, in his "after fighter pilot" life. He claims electrical gadgets flummox him, but there are few he has not attained and put on the truck. He has fifteen gears out of two transmissions and no less than five different ways to select each gear. That explanation took the better part of the run to Tallahassee. I was not trusted to drive after dozing off during an intricate 12th to 13th gear discussion.

Arrival at the hatchery was on time and we got a tour of the place from the guys running it. I went with the catching crew and helped gather our riders. The pools were about one-acre four-foot deep ponds. The guys coaxed the fish to the corner with food and surrounded them with a big net. I'd hate to see what pool of ten pound fish were like during feeding. These were not hard to attract with terrible smelling food pellets.

The fish were scooped into five gallon buckets that were half full and pre-weighed, re-weighed and put into the tanks on the trailer until we figured, by average weight estimating, that there were 4000 in each tank. It took about two hours including the setting up of the support system. The little guys were anti-biotic protected and then doped to slow down their activity level so they would not use too much oxygen.

The "system" was why I was there since Dennis chickened out. In the rear tank was a sensor that detected milligrams of oxygen per liter. I had a meter in the front seat to read that. There was not sensor in the front tank and that would have to be estimated. In each tank was an "oxygen defusing rock" connected to individual tanks in the back seat of the truck. The two tubes and one wire were lashed together and ran about 30 feet along the trailer up through the fifth-wheel hitch and into the back window behind me. All I had to do was keep the two tanks at a perfect breathing level for the fish. This jury-rigged system and my limited capabilities would be the problems that would caused us to be the "killers" of many of Tucker's babies.

By eleven AM we were on the road headed home. We thought our only problem might be getting through the agriculture inspection station since we had paper saying the fish were disease free but not the permit to have game fish in possession in amounts greater than daily limits or in sizes outside of "keepers." At a $500 fine for each, we could see a minor problem. When we passed that hurdle (the guy at the station was sleeping) success seemed assured. Not so fast moosebreath!

Sandy soon noted a loose tube flapping in the breeze while checking the load in the mirrors. It had been about 15+ minutes since I had last unhooked and checked the tanks in the back. I could only monitor the rear tank while sitting in the seat. A quick stop confirmed the hose to the front tank had come apart at a connection that was not clamped properly. The O2 tank for that lead tank had run to zero. When I had asked the hatchery guys how long the fish would live without the O2, they said, "not long." "Not long" might have already run out.

We re-hooked the connection but had to get O2 flowing back to the front tank fast. We did not know what it took to kill that fish but 4000 of the little suckers in about 200 gallons sucked it down quickly. I noted the back tank's solution was at about 8 mg/l and changed the connection to the front tank and upped the flow. Sandy raced towards the next town of Perry while contacting the guys at the hatchery by car phone. I watched the back tank deplete while guessing the status in the front one.

The guys said 3 mg/l was the minimum for survival in the monitored tank but too much could be fatal also. Keep it below 10. Great, how would we know if the front were killed from too little of too much? They might already be dead so we were going to make sure the back tank made it though this.

Sandy, on the car phone, found a new source of gas for our depleted supply at a welding supply shop in Perry, Florida. Of course, communication between humans and the normal screw ups in that came into play. The guy got it in his mind we were coming from the North and gave us backward directions delaying us some. That was not too bad in the Comm arena as Sandy started out with the 411 operator asking for "emergency oxygen" and not mentioning it was for some stupid fish. When he said something about 4000 victims she was starting into high dither. For a bit I expected to have to explain the "over limit" problem to some guys with lights on the tops of their cars.

I was getting into a pattern and figuring out a switching time of about 16 minutes when we got to the shop. Before arriving we finally found Dennis on the phone and let him know what the emergency plan was...and also thanked him "very much" for the chance to serve. He was in approval of our plan, sort of, and said he would be by the phone this time.

Perry welding supply shops are well stocked and steadfastly run, at least this one was. They are not ready for two fat yelling maniacs with 4000 gasping fish to show up at lunchtime on a slow Thursday morning. I am sure we left them with the "story of the day" for the corner café by the time we left.

The rest of the trip seemed almost boring compared to that hour of panic. I got the back tank flow steady at 8 mg/l and switched that bottle to the front tank and then re-calibrated the other bottle. Of course the two bottles were not the same type of regulator set up, but eventually all was in balance. We cruised the way home with a quick stop for food, one for honey buying and any number of stops for Sandy to "check the trailer." He did this from the bushes beside the road most of the time.

Arrival was at 530PM to a crowd of waiting onlookers, ages from two to seventy two. The youngest was Hampton Tucker to the oldest Sidney Rosenbaum. Sandy and I looked on as the back tank was opened and found to have no casualties. The babies were so excited to be there that they were leaping over the side. Hampton and his sister were scrambling around catching the little guys and putting them in the netted pens in the sound. The kids and the fish were about the same speed.

Opening the front tank brought a gloom to the party. There were about 25 floaters…not too bad considering the events of the trip. When I scooped into the bottom the whole scoop was full of lifeless little bodies. They looked so bad mouth-to-mouth CPR was too late. I would have done it. I felt sick. The attention was on the rear tank but the bubbles were still left on the front tank.

The rear tank was emptied 50 fish at a time into a bucket then into the pens. Nobody would look me in the eye; I felt that way at least. The trailer got unhooked. Sandy and I left feeling a little low, as the work was still ongoing. It was a good effort on our part but we just did not get the job done. I went to bed feeling like a mass murderer. It did take only seven seconds to get to sleep though. At least guilt does not slow that down when really tired.

Good news found me in the morning. The Daily News had an article. The front tank was found to have had some survivors after all. Perhaps they got too much O2 and came out of a stupor after we left. The paper showed a picture of Dennis scooping a net into a tank and told of Tucker's passion and the project. There were 6000 alive and swimming in the pens. Thank God they did not mention the loss of the 2000 and the names of the guilty. You can save 6000 fish but let a little gas and you will be known as "stinky." Perhaps our deeds will stay in the background.

Sandy called later to give me the news of the lessening of our crime and then Tucker told me later that once all the live ones were recovered from the front tank they left the dead ones and some water sit over night. In the morning he found one little fish alive and swimming among his dead siblings. Jim picked him and caressed the poor little guy. He was carefully placed in with the live ones with "medal of honor" status for the horror he survived. The genes of that one needed to be saved.

Next spring, hopefully, 6000 eleven to fifteen inch fish will join our bay and estuaries. There will be more losses, there are always some, but even with the 25% up front loss they may beat Mother Nature. That is part of what tagging and tracking this batch is hoping to find out.

There will be more fish transporting and we will have learned from this fiasco. My bet is we will do better next time...and I bet Sandy and I will not do it alone either.

Happy fishing! Try the "catch and release" method so Jim doesn't need to do this so often and you don't feel guilty for eating too many in your life. ~ Capt Scud Yates


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