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« on: January 16, 2015, 02:34:31 PM »

Winter Flounder Fyke Net Fishery of Eastern CT 1880-1920

IMEP #43

The Association of Estuarine Bivalve Shell Habitats
To the Historic Winter Flounder Fyke Net Fishery of Eastern, CT
Comments About Coastal Cove Habitat Conditions

This paper was part of a presentation to:
The Thirteenth Flatfish Biology Conference
December 4-5, 2012
NOAA National Marine Fisheries Services Dominion
Southern and the New England Chapter American Fisheries Society

Habitat Information For Fishers and Fishery Area Managers
Understanding Science Through History
(IMEP Habitat History Newsletters can be found indexed by date on The Blue Crab.Info™ website:  Fishing, Eeling and Oystering thread)
and Connecticut™ /Salt Water Reports

Timothy C. Visel
 The Sound School – 60 South Water Street, New Haven, CT 06519 USA

[email protected]


For centuries the association of estuarine shell, especially bivalve shell litter has been found to hold winter flounder populations.  In eastern Connecticut at the turn of the century coastal coves supported a large fyke net winter flounder fishery.  According to Hugh M. Smith writing in an 1889 US Fish Commission report the eastern Connecticut fyke net fishery was at the time the nation’s largest and totaled 440 fykes.  At times this flounder fyke net fishery extended into southern Rhode Island salt ponds as well.  Winter flounder inhabited reaches of the Mystic, Pawcatuck, Niantic, Thames, and Connecticut Rivers in 5 to 15 feet of water.  Fyke nets were mobile fish traps and set on bottoms that were firm and sandy.  The 1880s followed a much colder and energy filled period, coastal storms and colder temperatures often containing “sea ice” provided ideal habitat conditions for winter flounder.  Firm or hard bottoms and those containing clams and oyster populations were some of the best sites in which to set fyke nets.  Examinations of turn of the century state and federal reports describes habitat conditions and fishing effort that mirror those habitats that contained estuarine shell (CT report of the State Board of Fisheries Game, September 30, 1914).  The same coves that once supported winter flounders also were sources of bay scallop, oysters and clams. (US Fish Commission Bulletin 1889 Collins).  It is suspected that the same estuarine soil conditions that sustained bivalve sets were also important winter flounder spawning habitat and winter flounder seeking them were subject to this fyke net fishery.

By 1914 this fyke net fishery had collapsed and now attributed to changing habitat conditions.  By the 1920s this once large fishery was over as habitat conditions had greatly changed – the last fyke net business operated by the Daniels family in Hamburg Cove (Lyme) where winter flounder once entered this estuary ended in the 1940s.

By 1989 a full century after Hugh M. Smith’s report, Eastern Connecticut coves had largely failed for winter flounder.  As attention focused upon the fishermen in the 1980s for the decline of winter flounder while fishers often asked for assistance in reviewing changed local habitat conditions.  The importance of clean, hard bottoms ones containing bivalve shell habitats such as cobble/gravel and sand bars with colder temperatures was frequently overlooked.  Eastern CT coves contain a habitat history that today no longer resembles the habitat conditions described by Collins, 1889.  It reflects a far different habitat quality – one that responds to energy and climate drivers that have vastly changed since the last century. That climate pattern is referred to as the North Atlantic Oscillation, often abbreviated as the “NAO”.  The NAO is now subject to several habitat/fishery cycle investigations.

I respond to all emails at [email protected]

The Thirteenth Flatfish Biology Conference
Wednesday, December 5, 2012
NOAA – National Marine Fisheries Service
Ambrose Jerald, Chair
The Historic Fyke Net Fishery of Eastern CT
Comments About Coastal Cove Habitat Conditions
Timothy C. Visel
The Sound School


Fyke nets are a worldwide gear type based upon the movement of fish. Rarely baited, they function to guide fish into an enclosure from which they cannot escape. Fykes evolved from a much earlier weirs/bush and netting to a gear type well adapted for small boat use. Fykes (modern) consist of a trap body (often with twine funnels which serve as a one way valve) a long leader or fence and two wing walls. The “leader” and wing walls act to guide fish into the trap body, and are classified as a passive gear type.
Winter flounder were thought to return to the same pond or cove in which to spawn (Saul Saila, 1962), but we may find it may be more specific than that,  perhaps returning to the same bar or cobble stone area in which to deposit eggs. (Saul Saila 1962 Crawford 1990)

Fykes were quite effective in capturing and intercepting returning winter flounder and the seasonal movement of these fish created the fishery.  The fishing season described by Smith (1889), February 1 to March 31 is eerily the same as described by Crawford (1990) for Rhode Island salt ponds a century later, February to April.

The early years (0-3 years) the sand/gravel/cobble stone seem to be prime spawning and nursery habitat.  Three years and older bivalve shell seems to be important habitat for feeding if not temperature stressed.  Warm temperatures and the lack of energy (storms) may cause both these important habitat types to fail for winter flounder.  In times storms and heavy rains tend to be buried by organic debris and leaf matter from upland watersheds.

Habitat failures are not usually sudden (forest fires or hurricanes being the exception), but in this case declining habitat quality spread over decades.  As temperatures became warmer (1880 to 1920) and eastern Connecticut’s habitats sustained energy losses, from the absence of storms, construction of breakwaters or tidal restrictions, habitats turned from favorable to unfavorable overtime, they gradually changed. One of the first signs of this habitat transition was the increased presence of organic mucks more properly termed Sapropels. Fishers described them as filled or “sour” bottoms.

Description of the Gear Type

The Fyke net fishery is a collapsible fish trap suited for a small boat fishery. It can be set with stakes and poles or with anchors. It is designed for currents and the movement of fish; it is a true trap, guiding fish by obstruction instead of the early traps which often used brush and stones to create pressure waves and acoustic signals to alarm fish.  The fykes of the 1880s used wood hoops (steamed hickory) and natural fiber twine (today synthetic) usually manila.  They were tarred in creosote or linseed oil containing lye as a preservative. Later versions after 1920 used a series of graduated diameter hoops which numbered between 5 and 7.  A fyke net with more than 7 hoops was rare, most were seven hoops in strong tides, 5 hoops in bays and coves.  Key to the design was the placement of two funnels, usually on 5 hoop fykes; the funnel is on the first and 3rd hoops, 7 hoop fykes on the 2nd  and 5th hoop.  The size of the fykes determines the length and taper of the funnel which still can be seen in the southern turtle traps of the south and west.  The fykes at the turn of the century have 4 foot diameter hoops, some 5 foot,  being graduated to 30”.  So a fyke hoop series could be 60 inches, 48”, 40”, 36” 30” to a drawn tie up to an anchor line.  The fyke once set is not completely hauled in but just the last two hoops beyond the second funnel brought above the water surface. The funnels throats have precisely that a cut and tapered “throat” web or funnel (similar to lobster trap funnels) that allowed fish to pass from which escape was nearly impossible. The funnel design guided fish up the incline (similar to lobster pot funnels) narrowed to a valve or flap. The two throat fyke had a retention rate estimated to be 90% or more making this type very effective. It was also a “conservation” fishing method, captured fish were kept alive allowing release of uninjured or unwanted undersize small fish and was not towed on the bottom using less fuel and finally did not disturb the bottom.  The size of the mesh in the fyke body was selected to allow the escape of small fish, and ranged from 3 inches to 4 inches stretch measures.  Because fish were not injured by towing and bruised by implements the quality of fyke net fish was unsurpassed. If the fyke could not be hauled due to bad weather service, trapped fish remained alive; lost fykes on occasion simply rotted away as materials then were natural, wood and natural fiber,  not synthetic. It was at one time  a worldwide passive fishing gear type as described by Brent in Fishing Gears of the World.

In New England, fykes were built by the fishermen themselves, requiring a boil box, an oak rectangular box which was filled with trimmed pine and hickory samplings, (boiled in water or steamed) until pliable and bent around wheels (often old wagon wheels) tapered with a drawn knife and seized (joined) with tarred manila twine (see The CT River Essex Museum, Daniels Company fykes) the tapered ends were often 10 to 20 inches, so to construct a 50 inch diameter hoop circumference 3.14 X 50 = 157” with overlap of 200” or about 17 feet.   A long boil box or boil troth was used to soften these wood hoops (also much the same techniques was found in the bent hoop lobster pots of the same period). The first fykes were hand sewn webbing tapered completely by hand, then as machine made, webs were available due to a strong Connecticut textile industry (in the 1870s – 1890s nearly 80% of all commercial United States twine and web was once made in New England). Sheet webbing was cut and sewn to resemble the conical shape fyke body. Of the hoops of the early fykes funnels were sewn directly to the hoop again similar to early lobster pot construction) but later funnels were sewn to the web fyke body and reversed.

Staked Fykes

Stakes are hammered or jetted in to maintain the fyke shape, 6 on a wing wall, 3 to the fish end and up to 30 for the leader =45 to 50 stakes per fyke usually in areas of strong currents a large mesh size in the leader was common.  To fish several five hoop fykes would require dozens of cut hickory poles.

Anchor Fykes

The anchor fyke used long anchor rocks or bridles to get the anchors one on the leader, one each on the wing walls and one very long anchor bridle to the fish end. A small fyke would require at least four anchors.

Setting and Placement

As those were below the surface traps on the bottom often the first hoop and second to the last hoop was buoyed. Setting could be carefully arranged with temporary samplings area into the bottom marking anchor placement. Anchors set at fish end set first, then leader, wing walls positioned later to maintain the set shape as shown in Illustration I.  As these were low profile submerged traps (ideal for flounder) they often were not visible beyond marker buoys.

Extent of the Eastern CT Fyke Net Fishery (1911)

The State of Connecticut established the Fish Commission to regulate the fisheries within its borders. This was a major change as previous regulations were the coastal town for “public” fisheries and riparian landowners for long and short haul seine fisheries which became classified as the two and one-half inch net fishery for Connecticut.  It was customary to give the riparian land owner a share or 12.5%. (One bit). There must have been a grandfather clause for offshore “pounds” those utilized in the menhaden reduction industry. These were large structures with extensive wing wells and leaders, sometimes to land; they were not small boat operations, not mobile like seines, but static or fixed. Permits were issued by the state, but not permission to cross private lands so coastal landowners continued to “share” in the shore seine fisheries, except fykes, a type of fish trap was movable and could be set from a boat. Thus in 1911, fykes were found under “pounds and traps” on pg. 305 and traps nets (all mesh, rectangular) 20 and pound nets 52 Pg54).  Fykes also appear in the two and one half inch net fishery (shore seines) as 78. To further complicate the reporting and to safeguard established coastal fishing rights (sites) a number for setting pounds traps and fykes (pg 46) is an area not a per site number of nets. Thus the statistics reveal for 1911 that Fred J. Ostman of Stonington held 19 numbered permits for specific locations but permit #69 was for 30 fykes set from Stonington Point to Osbrook Point.

Footnote #2. As the trap companies developed rectangular designs with net floors were seen as more productive from the old circular. Stone and mesh weirs that could be hauled. The basic designed has a leaders and funnels remained in them.

This fact was to concern the later fisheries and game commissioners as fyke and pound trap catches continued to fall, they were unable to determine the extent of the fishery as one permit (site) allowed the possible deployment of many fyke nets. In the 1921-1922 Fourteenth Biennial Report, this concern was mentioned on page 48 “under Section 3134”.

Report of State Board of Fisheries and Game

The Pound and Fyke Net Fishery of the Connecticut River 1921-1922

Under Section 3134, any person who desires to fish on the Connecticut River with a pound or fyke net must first submit to the Commissioners a description of the net, the place where it is to be set, etc., and having done so it is a compulsory duty of the Commissioners to furnish a number for the net.  In actual operation there is no restriction as to the number of nets which any individual may use, nor is there any restriction as to the period of the year when they are in operation.

The fishermen make application for assignment of numbers for a stated number of nets, giving a general description of the location, upon the receipt of which the Commissioners fill out a blank form assigning the numbers – a purely perfunctory operation.

The maximum of numbers issued to one applicant is for 40 nets and the average number of nets used by each fisherman is around 10.

There is perhaps no time of the year when some of the fyke nets are not in use, although during extreme freshet periods the fishing is limited to certain inshore or overflowed areas to which the fish may have resorted for the spawning function.

During the winter months only a limited number of nets are used because the fishermen are hampered by the ice. The principal catch of the nets which are operated in the Winter, consists of carp and suckers. But in the Spring, during the period when the pickerel and perch are spawning, there is no restriction upon the operation of fyke nets in the region where these fish spawn or in the passageway leading to such spawning area.  While there is a close season on pickerel and carrying an average of 30,000 eggs each, are shipped to market.  If fishing were restricted so that the perch could have a chance to deposit their eggs, millions of young fry would hatch to help in maintaining the fishery.  Furthermore, it is possible for the Commission to propagate millions of perch fry for the rehabilitation of the fishery, provided funds are available and the co-operation of the fishermen is assured.”   (rekeyed by Susan Weber for Sound School)

From the pound and fyke net fishery of the Connecticut River Report of the State Board of Fisheries and Game, for the Years 1921-1922”
That is what makes the Smith data so important as it establishes a picture of the Connecticut Fyke Net Fishery –

1) Most of the fyke nets were deployed east of the Connecticut River

2) The primary catches were winter flounder and white perch.

The 1911 Report does provide good information about the number of permits by area, and includes a number of sites for fykes. Ocean pounds – circular structures that resembled early Native American weirs were often located in the same locations often built upon the remains of wall of stones. Periods of relative calm and few hurricanes would allow such structures in periods of coastal energy and colder temperatures -they were damaged. Smaller weirs are found in coves and rivers, From 1931 on destructive storms hastened to collapse of pound nets in CT, by 1969 Only the Walston Fish Trap set off Hogs Point, Guilford (Circle Beach area) remained.

One of the best examples of the stone brush weirs were traps built off the coast off Westbrook.
It is difficult to ascertain the extent of the fyke net fishery in many shore towns. As they were mobile and could be moved rapidly but acted as traps, we do have good locations, records and can be assigned to regions.

Further examinations of the Connecticut’s Biennial Reports may add to our local knowledge of Connecticut’s once prevalent fyke net fishery.

From the later Commissioners of Fishers & Game Reports could provide additional information. It is known that in later years, 1930 and 1940s, the State did deploy fykes for fish census purpose having seen some typed reports in boxed storage at the Old DEEP Marine Fisheries Headquarters in Waterford CT in the 1980s.

1 true pounds had no floor and fish were seined from them, rock funnels three to five feet above the bottom (half tide) trapped fish in the bowl as per Native American design. (See Old Saybrook Fish Weir, South Cove)

2 Colonial Traps had a net floor and when lifted allowed  fish to be dipped net or dried up in the “pocket”        .

The Winter Flounder Fyke Net Fishery and Estuarine Shell Habitats

In Section 22, Notes on the Oyster Fishery of Connecticut by J. W. Collins – Table 52 (US Fish Commission) mentions Quiambaug Cove and Mumford Cove as aquaculture (oyster) sites. Other eastern CT coves were granted to private culture under the authority of local oyster ground committees. Much of the upper Poquonnock River in Groton was leased (above the two bisecting railroad causeways) as also sections of the Mystic, Thames and Pawcatuck Rivers. Eastern Connecticut proved to be unsuitable for open water transplants of seed oysters. Numerous reports exist from the oyster industry then describing the often devastating impacts of coastal storms upon transplanted seed oysters, quite simply they were washed away. After a few attempts attention turned to the protection of coves in eastern CT the same areas that provided habitat for winter flounder.  Two of these  areas, Mumford and Quiambaug coves became contract - grow out areas for the New Haven based McNeil Oyster Company.  Seeking cleaner and firm bottom of protected coves the McNeil Oyster Company would transplant bedding stock commonly two year old “singles” seed oysters; these were a consistent 2.0 to 3 inch* oyster that in good growing conditions could reach 4 to 5 inches as a four year old.  (George McNeil personal communications, 1980s) and would contract for a percentage of the catch. In this way the “planter” and “grower “split the risk, obtaining bedding stock at a reduced price but giving a percentage of the return*. (George McNeil, p.c. 1980s)

*In a process of transplanting, the clusters of seed are broken and separated by deck hauls producing a rounder single oyster that shapes “up” becomes cup like for a one to two season grown out (compare to tumbling today on some oyster farms).

So in the more active and turbulent east Smith (1889) find the largest number of fyke nets in Stonington, Quiambaug, Mystic, Noank and New London, all the west of the Connecticut River and on or near oyster areas. These are also the areas that contained inshore populations of Mya – the soft shell clams and Mercenaria the hard shell clam or Quahog. These areas obtained large amounts of coastal energy; bay and cove bottoms were firm and the clam beds in the Pawcatuck and Thames River were extensive. Here fyke nets were set in two described seasons based upon temperature migrations- February 1 to about March 31 and again in the fall, October 1 to December 31. It was noted that the season at Noank was longer extending to late April.  As fish moved into the coves in the spring to summer, so did the placement of fykes.

“In Groton the fykes are operated at the mouths of the rivers during June and July and within the rivers during the rest of the year; flounders and fresh fish are secured.” (Hugh Smith, US Fish Commission, 1889)

In Rhode Island similar flounder fishing existed and the last remaining fyke net operations in Charlestown Pond was photographed in 1983.  To my knowledge the setting of fyke commercially now has ended in both Connecticut and Rhode Island.  The last recorded large catches in the late 1940s. (The 1948 United States Fish and Wildlife Service Report of the fisheries have fyke nets listed for CT 5,000 pounds of minnow’s  and 2,000 pounds of suckers). [The wire round minnow trap usually constructed of the ¼”  wire mesh is the last remnant of coastal fykes today. Fine mesh fykes were also utilized in the capturing of eels and brush eel fykes were once found in most if not all coastal creeks in Connecticut. Conversations with local residents in the 1980s provided similar habitat conditions during the Great Heat 1880-1920 as Hamburg cove nearly became filled with organic debris. Sapropel, a black jelly-like deposit was often “mined” for fertilizer in the 1900s.]

From the examination of historical records the association of productive shellfisheries to productive fyke net fisheries especially winter flounder habitat is not coincidental. It was historically substantial and later mentioned many times by oyster growers and recreational fishermen who afterwards sought out shellfish areas in which to fish.  The concentration of the fyke net fishery and connection to migrations/seasons (Smith 1887) provides evidence of both nursery and spawning winter flounder habitats. Flounder was returning to these areas to spawn and habitat studies today are often too short to illustrate long term energy and temperature habitat quality transitions.  [Hamburg Cove for example, used to have a deeper often firmer bottom (1940).  However, a 2008 survey found that large areas of the cove are now composting with immense accumulations of leaf material that measures several feet deep. (Personal observations and bottom test pipe probes, June 2008). In the lower reaches on both sides of the channel soft anaerobic accumulations overly previously firmer or harder bottoms.]
Surveys in the Poquonock system in Groton during 1985-1986 revealed similar bottom conditions above the railroad causeways in areas known to once support oyster culture and flounder fisheries. (Shellfish Survey 1984 Elmer Edwards Groton Shellfish Commission).  A survey of Beebe Cove (Groton) bisected by a long railroad causeway showed similar bottom changes and shoreward of the causeway had a soft bottom, but outside in higher current velocity area had firmer/harder bottoms.  Here local residents once told of soft shell clam beds, and winter flounder ice spear fisheries in the cove, but local reports now told the area was poor for these fisheries. A survey in Beebe Cove 1984- yielded thick accumulations of organic matter. A Mystic River survey above Masons Island (1985) had areas of extremely soft bottoms, the same areas that listed the area as once containing a large natural oyster bed (US Labor 1889 Map) and fyke net fisheries. The railroad causeways had trapped organic matter and in higher temperatures and a renewed forest canopy rotted during summer months.
Wequetequock Cove, Stonington, CT was once the site of a winter flounder hatchery operated by the State of Connecticut (1935 Noank Hatchery Report) and is also bisected by a railroad causeway had similar conditions (1987). The upper reaches of Niantic River and Jordan Cove’s Waterford had local surveys (1986) reveal similar soft leaf rotting deposits. An extensive survey of the Pattagansett River in 1987, East Lyme also bisected by the same railroad causeway found previous hard bottom bivalve containing habitats under a meter of soft organic material (Auster / Visel / DeGoursey 1990)
In a 1983-84 study of Old Saybrook’s fisheries, South Cove in the southern section of the town was shown to contain similar soft deposits and was bisected by a road (causeway) and previously by a railroad causeway which proved too difficult to maintain (Howard Clark, local resident, personal communication 1985).  In fact, in 1876, the Town of Old Saybrook sued the local railroad over the depth of North Cove, a railroad causeway bisected it also.   In every eastern Connecticut shore community fishers and residents often looked to the railroad causeways  for creating massive coastal habitat changes in eastern CT, Beebe Cove being the best example in eastern CT as a lobe of sub tidal habitat was nearly entirely cutoff from wave and storm energy. Many also referenced increased organic matter turning into swamps and blocking alewife runs.

But to most observers visual inspection was often very misleading, the tides still come in and out they “looked okay” but with increasing temperatures higher amounts of terrestrial storm water discharges which carried organic removing primarily ground up leaves; these once shelly and bivalve containing areas such as eastern CT coves became unsuitable for both shellfish and winter flounder.  In many instances they started to “fill in” they became soft mucky and smelled of sulfur in summer.  Instead of alkaline cultivated marine soils, they became acidic composting ones.  When that happened, acidic rot disease became widespread in the winter flounder population. Bottoms turned soft and organic filled and high heat caused pH to plummet.
We know that marine soils with reduced acidic conditions do not favor shellfish populations. The railroad causeways it is thought speeded up the natural degradation of flounder habitats, first as removal of energy and secondly trapping organics, but then higher temperatures and lack of shellfish cultivation must also be considered. In the end the combination of composting environments and higher temperatures were too much to overcome and habitat quality declined, for winter flounder.  What was to happen in all coastal coves was seen first in these bisected by road and railroad causeways, the removal of energy eventually with the higher temperatures and lack of energy would transition all other areas- a regional reversal or habitat failure for winter flounder.  It was the fishers that lived next to the coves who had seen the habitat conditions change above the causeways and felt a habitat loss connection to these causeways; they were largely correct. Reduced tidal exchange limited the duration of colder oxygen rich water into them impounding the water made it warmer longer, and the organic material washed into the coves was now impossible to “flush” from the small remaining tidal openings many of which were improperly positioned at the wrong angle to tidal flow. As such, habitat conditions for winter flounder failed here first, as correctly observed by fishermen. A “habitat history” in many cases still exists.  In the Pattagansett system in East Lyme, relic turn-of-the-century shellfish

populations were found under a meter of soft sediment, north of the 2,100 foot long causeway in 1990.
Within a half century of the railroad causeway, across eastern Connecticut coves both the shellfishery and fyke net fisheries above many of them were gone. Within a century, they were all gone. The habitats that supported these winter flounder fisheries however remain in buried shell Sapropel layers, a history lesson for habitat reversals and future habitat research opportunities.
I respond to all emails at [email protected]
Attachment 1

Attachment 2 The Southern New England Fisheries               

•   The Connecticut Winter Flounder Fyke Net Fishery

•   The Winter Flounder CT Spear Fishery – Energy Pathways for Adult Fish Habitats

•   Comments shared  at the 12th Flatfish Biology Conference

United States Fish Commission Bulletin 1889

   As already shown, the fyke-net fishery of Connecticut is more important than that of any other New England State.  Compared with 1880, the fishery seems to have about doubled in extent, judging by the number of nets used, although there are no data for 1880 on which to base a comparison of the catch and stock.  The average value of the nets, however, seems to have decreased.  In 1880, the number of fykes reported for the State was 255, valued at $2,480; in 1880, the number was 440, worth $2,230.
   Fyke-net fishing is carried on along most parts of the coast of this State.  All the prominent towns have more or less fishing of this kind.  The largest number of nets is found in Stonington, Quiambog, Mystic, Noank, and New London.  The distribution of the fykes in 1889 was as follows:

Diagram will be posted on school website soon.

The fish now taken in the fyke nets of Connecticut are principally flounders, frostfish, tautog, menhaden, and striped bass.  In a few places terrapin are taken, and in Stratford these are much more valuable than the remaining part of the catch.  In 1880 the species reported to be caught in fyke nets were sea bass, cod, bluefish, eels, weakfish, flounders, herring, shad, and occasionally sturgeon.  At Mystic the nets are set about February 1 and taken up about March 31: they are again set about October 1 and remain down until December 31.  Flatfish and frostfish are taken.  At Noank, the nets are fished from the first of February to the last of April, and from the first of       319 October to the middle of December.  The principal fishing, however, is done in the spring.  The  nets are placed in water 6 to 15 feet deep.  In Groton the fykes are operated at the mouths of the rivers during June and July, and within the rivers during the rest of the year; flounders and frostfish are secured.  The nearly 140,000 pounds of flounders, frostfish, and tautog, valued at $2,550, were obtained 1889.  Severn nets at Branford were fished for menhaden; about 100,000 fish were taken in the year named.

   The fyke net fishery of Connecticut in 1889 resulted in the capture of 455,250 pounds of fish, valued at $8,759, and 1,019 terrapin, worth $1,280.  The quantities of the different fishes were as follows: Products of the fyke-net fishery of Connecticut. Of the 455,000 pounds of fish caught by fykes in 1880, nearly 350,000 pounds was winter flounder.

Diagram will be put on The Sound School website soon.

The Winter Flounder CT Spear Fishery – Energy Pathways for Adult Fish Habitats
Tim Visel, The Sound School

The accounts of the Niantic Bay flounder spear fishery of the 1860s to the 1930s in general had three features:

1)   It occurred over sandy bottoms or patches of sand relatively free of vegetation containing shellfish or near shellfish areas – hard and soft shell clams.
2)   Shallow edges to deeper ones were most productive such as channels or river bends.
3)   It was a drift fishery – based upon vision – water clarity – both daylight and by torch at  night.

Other Connecticut areas also had similar fisheries such as the Noank area, Poquonnock River, Mason’s Island, Mystic River, Mumford Cove and Cedar Island Inner areas of Clinton Harbor.  Many creeks supported both eelgrass and flounder spear fisheries.  Eels preferring softer or muddy bottoms.  From the hundreds of eel and flounder spears that survive today and readily purchased at numerous antique shops its easy to believe family fishing histories.

The largest difference between the eel and flounder spear fisheries was visual for the flounder, eel fishery not based on sight but a life history that sought out deep winter holes, depressions in soft muddy areas while flounder preferred hard bottom (sand) and was seen by fishers as a valuable habitat.  Winter flounder spear fisheries were done through ice in winter (see flounder pounder) at night with torches and during the day over shallow sand bars.

Some of the accounts from winter flounder fishery describe a biological feature associated with burying species, such as winter flounder.  It was described as a flutter, a wave movement of the ventral and dorsal fins.  It was this movement that  revealed a camouflaged flounder directing the spear head to the target.  It was called “fluttering” and it was this dust line that revealed the presence and size of the prey and also perhaps a mechanism to enhance oxygen exchange.

Several individuals reported that the sand itself was important to adult life support – fin movement was equated to gill movement.  That the best bottoms were sandy ones and not muddy, that flounder adults needed a clean loose sandy bottom to “breath” linking sand pore ground water as an oxygen supply source itself.  These flounder fisheries were largely gone by the depression 1930s and spears are the only reminders of this once large productive fishery along our shore.

In the 1970s and early 1980s Connecticut winter flounder started to exhibit fin rot – erosion of the fins.  Some of the fin loss was extreme in the caudal fin as well as the adjacent dorsal, and ventral fins.  Some of the specimens brought to me at UCONN Sea Grant during this period had extreme fin/flesh loss to the point of exposing much of the tail meat to the environment.  Some reports indicated that skin O2 update is safety mechanism when subjected to low O2 levels hypoxia and today wonder if these two conditions were somehow linked.  A small fyke net set in Green Pond in Falmouth MA, for example in the early 1980’s had dead flounder with several exhibiting fin erosion from an overnight set.  The pond was in my opinion experiencing hypoxia at night.  Events in CT fisheries history tell of suffocating marine vegetation that killed flounder in the 1880’s.  Shellfishermen claimed that bottoms were turning “sour or acid” long thought to be the result of nutrient enhancement in the 1970s and 1980s.  It seemed as though the habitats upon which flounders had come to live had within a century turned against them.  Instead of sand well oxygenated bottom soil, it have become muddy and oxygen depleted soil.  Contact with this low oxygen environment had turned so acidic it was literally dissolving the mucus that had protected the fins?  Did reports of a sandy bottoms seem inconsistent in the same area as more recent surveys revealed soft organic deposits.  Several Niantic Bay Fishermen claimed that “today’s” bottom had little connection to previous habitats or historic bottoms?  Had time and habitat turned against the flounder and if so did we have a role in this habitat change?  These are some of the questions that I seek answers to today as the winter flounder population continues to be at very low levels here in our state.

Some references accounts by fishermen that could help include my investigation.

1)   Habitat specific locations for historic flounder spear fisheries, articles, reports, journal entries oral history.
2)   Surveys that show a lack of energy or rapid sedimentation – does a less favorable habitat or bottom exist over a previous one?  This is called a “habitat history”
3)   Do winter flounders have a “safety system” for handling low oxygen by absorbing oxygen through the skin and not only their gills.  Is this function connected to the fin rot/erosion condition observed 25 years ago.

Thank you for your consideration.  Comments about historical winter flounder habitats are always welcome.  I can be reached at [email protected]

Tim Visel         
The Sound School
60 South Water Street
New Haven, CT  06519     

Comments Shared at the 12th Flatfish Biology Conference 
We Need Research to Determine Secondary Respiration Pathway in
Winter Flounder Skin
Winter Flounder May A Have Secondary Life Support System Critical in Low Oxygen Conditions - December 2, 2010
Timothy C. Visel
Tom’s Creek Series #6

In 1968 I was fortunate to spend a day with a Yale University student studying Tom’s Creek.  Tom’s Creek a small tidal creek next to my home growing up in Madison, CT.  I had been in the creek hundreds if not thousands of times.  This day was different it was a study and I believe I saw some of the first portable oxygen probe equipment.  It was over 40 years ago.  The study involved the oxygen levels in the creek over an entire tide cycle.  Since the student was using my boat I was involved, it was a long two day study.

One of the interesting events was the sharp oxygen drop on the ebb tide – warmer water on the ebb held much less oxygen.  A small plastic/glass view box – similar to a bay scallop “looker” enabled us to view the shallow water and at low tide many organisms – crab species, small fish and flounder became quiet.  Oxygen levels bottomed out (it was hot) but small flounder stayed in the creek.  They sought out brown sandy bottoms.  When we drifted over them you could see their outline against the sand.  The researcher explained that its cooler by the sand – light colors tended to reflect solar heating and cooler water existed there.  Stopping and taking out a small sampling tool dug into the creek sand – put your hand in – it was cool – noticeably cooler than the surface water.  I didn’t think that much about it, believing it to be away seeking relief from the summer heat (which at that point seemed very attractive).

Many years later I ran into some Niantic Bay fishermen who used to spear fish flounder - during the day (most spear fishing was with lights at night) at low tide over sand bars.  In clear water they would wait to see the flutter, the movement of fins to outline the flounder.  The fishermen commented they (the flounder) go to the sand bars to drink the water.  I put this aside but as anoxic conditions grew worse in Connecticut and many habitats failed for them I learned of the existence of a secondary respiratory pathway in the bottom tail skin.  Once activated it could account for up to 40% life support.  The flounder went into a type of respiratory hibernation – the flutter was to move bottom water past these specialized skill cells. 

Then the Tom’s Creek experience came back, perhaps that is why they could stay in Tom’s Creek (and away from the predators at the creek mouth) for the two or three hours – until the tide changed and with it higher dissolved oxygen levels.   Many studies point to anoxic or low DO threshold level and a two to three hour delay before the flounder become agitated and flee – their “SCUBA” air system ran out.  Research on other species (platessa) shows this pathway can last two to three hours giving them an advantage with our tidal cycle here in New England.  This could be very important in tidal salt ponds and creeks such as Tom’s Creek.  A hydraulic explanation could be at high tide the force of the incoming tide would temporarily reverse ground water flows producing a ground pulse when the tide ebbed the flow would then be reversed.  The water in the marsh itself could create a pressure gradient and the weakness in the ground water table was the creek.  For two/three hours the flow would reverse again - like a spring and flow up through the creek bottom.  The sandy areas could contain more pore water marking those flounder for spear fishermen who thought that flounder were drinking it but instead absorbing oxygen from this cool water reserve.

The pulse effect of tidal influences upon shoreline ground waters had been well studied.  What impact upon the biology of winter flounder remains in my mind poorly understood – evidence does indicate that hypoxia is a cyclic event with several episodes here in the last several centuries.  These shallow water tidal habitats appear to offer flounder protection from deep water predators.  I believe a biological foundation exists explaining why several conference papers yesterday revealed a reluctance for flounder to leave oxygen depleted waters (as I seen in Tom’s Creek years ago) they have a mechanism to wait for tidal change and the expectation of higher DOs.  Only after a period of prolonged low oxygen and no replenishment do flounder seek other areas.  They became excited and quickly swim away.  I have seen this at times while oystering.

Flounder may have over time developed this bottom skin respiration pathway enabling them to stay in shallow water habitats.  The flutter mentioned by so many old timers could not only a camouflage mechanism but also a respiratory one.  The “flutter” these fishermen looked for is also what Osprey look for and many were “robbed” before the flounder spear found its mark.  Several old timers mentioned that Osprey were a constant hunting companion in the 1940s and 1950s.

I enjoyed the flatfish biology conference very much and hope this area might be of some interest to other researchers.

Tim Visel           

Study on a related species is listed below.

The relative importance of skin oxygen uptake in the naturally buried plaice, pleuronectes platessa, exposed to graded hypoxia.
John F. Steffensena, Jeans Peter, Lomholta
aDepartment of Zoophysiology, University of Aarhus, DK-8000 Aarhus C., Denmark
Accepted 27 February 1981.  Available online 6 January 2003.             

Tom’s Creek does offer an opportunity re examine low oxygen and winter flounder responses.  The equipment has certainly improved to measure oxygen levels in small bodies of water.  Understanding the relationship to these shallow water sand and estuarine shell environments are key to restoration efforts.  Winter flounder populations have declined to very low levels, thought to reflect a region wide habitat failure.

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RonMeischker RMeischker
« Reply #1 on: January 16, 2015, 07:33:15 PM »

Always a great read with a ton of information.

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