Scott Smith is excited about fish. You can hear it in his voice – and the way it races every time the conversation turns in that direction. While his work with the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries certainly gives him plenty of opportunity to learn more about his favorite topic, it is his hobby that is garnering the young man quite a bit of attention these days.
Smith embarked on a daunting task. He wanted to catch, catalog and photograph every species of fish indigenous to Carteret County – both fresh and salt water – to help fishermen and enthusiasts better identify their catch. In the summer of 2014, the pair launched www.ncfishes.com with little fanfare from the non-fishing community. The site, however, quickly gained the attention of educators, scientists and others, not necessarily for the nature of their extra-curricular project, but for the beautifully-detailed photographs that has resulted.
“I started collecting and photographing fish in a lab class in college,” said Smith. “Sometimes I’d do it for fun with my dad, who had become a member of an aquarium society. Then, of course, it was part of my job once I joined Fisheries. When time allowed I would go to the dock and see what’s being caught and I would carry a point and shoot camera and take photos for myself.”
For the most part, however, the fish are lying motionless on the dock or they’re being held up by the tail. Rarely, said Smith, did conditions allow for a truly detailed shot. And ultimately, he said, these type of tools are the only things someone has to work with when they want to identify a fish – a dock photo and line drawings done for Fisheries.
“Now these are great drawings done by really talented artists – but they’re still drawings,” said Smith. “We really wanted to step up the game.”
And that’s exactly what he did.
Jesse Bissette, a co-worker at Fisheries and amateur photographer, was the missing piece of the puzzle and with Smith’s exuberance he was easily recruited for the side project. The pair talked endlessly about the best way to photograph the fish and lots of trial and error ensued, said Smith with a chuckle. But before long, the men found they could get extraordinary pictures by placing their catch in a water filled frame and lighting it with a small external strobe light. The frame is then photographed with macro gear against a black background, resulting in bright, colorfully detailed, museum quality images – allowing both backyard fishermen and researchers the opportunity to truly study the subject. There is still
a lot of trial and error, Smith said. For every good shot, there are 10 that don’t work. But they couldn’t be happier with the results.
“They were really better than anything we thought was possible. On a whim we thought maybe we should just post them online so everyone can see them. We started posting identification guides here and there and including the photos that we had taken,” said Smith. “It really took off.
“Now we’re not pretending to be writers, authors, bloggers or web designers in any
way,” he added. “We’re certainly not any of those things. Identification is the primary purpose – for the average guy who is fishing to have somewhere where he can go when he’s not sure what he’s caught. But it’s also about education. It’s about teaching people about all these amazing fish that are in their own backyard. We don’t do it for money, we don’t get paid in any way, in fact it costs money to host the website. But it’s fun and we enjoy teaching people about all these wonderful fish that live right here in our waters.”
Along the way they’ve seen their fair share of rare species, including a freshwater river goby living in a stormwater runoff pond near the Crystal Coast Visitor’s Center in Morehead City. Not only is the fish not indigenous to North Carolina, they’re rare to find in the United States.
“One was found in 1996 in the Cape Fear River, so this is only the second documented case,” said Smith. “But of course, people may have come across one and just not known what it was.”
The identification was made through contact with the Natural History Museum in Raleigh and specialists who study the fish in Mexico City. The men also found a cinnamon river shrimp in the same freshwater pond, leaving them to speculate that they’ve come across an interesting habitat right here in the middle of town.
Odds are, Smith surmised, the fish made its way to Eastern North Carolina aboard a cargo ship and while they’re not supposed to, ships could potentially dump their ballast water allowing the fish to escape into the environment. How it got into the runoff pond, however, remains a mystery.
“This was definitely one of the most interesting situations we have come across so far, but I’m sure there are lots of other things out there to find,” said Smith.
To date, there are only two freshwater fish native to Carteret County that have eluded the men as far as they can tell – the iron color shiner and mud sunfish.
Next, Smith said they hope to begin moving down toward the Wilmington area as time allows, which may be close to Carteret County, but has a very different group of fish for the men to catalog. And there’s hope of working more with saltwater fish, said Smith, which comes with a new set of challenges.
“One of the biggest problems that we have to face now is what to do when the fish aren’t small,” he said. “But we’ve been experimenting and we’ll figure it out.”
And we feel sure this pair will come up with a perfect answer.