Scientist uses 19th century fishwheel' device to study fish populations

A zoologist at North Carolina State University is using a 19th century device called a "fishwheel" to study the spawning migration of striped bass and other Atlantic Ocean species on North Carolina's Roanoke River.

For the second year in a three-year pilot project, the fishwheel is scooping fish out of the river in Halifax County, so Dr. Joe Hightower and his colleagues can count and return them to the river, no worse for wear.

"One of the things that attracted me to this approach was, unlike gill nets and trawls, it doesn't hurt the fish," said Hightower, NC State associate professor of zoology and assistant leader of the N.C. Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit. "The beauty of this project is that the fish are in good shape. We get the information we need and then release them unharmed."

Set on a 38-foot-long platform that floats along the bank of the Roanoke River near Scotland Neck, the machine requires no motor or electrical power supply. The river current turns the wheel, dipping a series of 10-foot-square nets into the water. Fish scooped up by the nets are dropped into a water-filled box, from which Hightower's research assistants count, measure and release the fish.

The project runs from mid-February to mid-June, and involves counting striped bass, alewife, hickory shad, blueback herring and American shad. The largest catches of striped bass may come in early to mid-May.

The first documented use of fishwheels was from the early 1800s, when they were used to capture shad in East Coast rivers, most notably the Roanoke and Pee Dee rivers in the Carolinas. They were reportedly common along the East Coast as early as 1829.

Since the late 1800s, fishwheels have been used extensively in the Pacific Northwest to catch salmon as they moved upstream to spawn. The wheels were later used by commercial fishery operations on both coasts, but were so successful in catching large numbers of fish that they were banned in most places. They'r

Contact: Dr. Joe Hightower
North Carolina State University

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