Recreational Fish Tagging by American Littoral Society

Aug 02, 2017
Photo by: Pat Johnson Jeff Dement is director of the American Littoral Society’s Recreational Fish Tagging program.

The American Littoral Society’s Recreational Fish Tagging Program, founded in 1965, is the largest and longest-running salt-water fish-tagging program in the country, aiding fisheries research, management and protection. On Tuesday, July 25, Fish Tagging Director Jeff Dement was at the Jacques Cousteau Education Center in Tuckerton to show how it’s done.

There are approximately 1,000 volunteer recreational fishermen between Maine and Florida who participate in the fish-tagging program. Basically, an angler attaches a plastic tag to a fish he or she has caught and then releases the fish. They also provide Dement with a card that tells him the type, size and weight of the fish and where it was caught and released. Then sometime down the line, someone else may catch that fish with a tag and is directed to contact Dement with the information gathered from the caught fish.

The yellow loop tag has a number that is important in identifying the fish. “Measure the fish from snout to the fork in the tail and weigh it if you are able,” he said. “Other recapture info includes the location where the fish was caught, the day it was caught, the species of fish and the disposition of the fish – did you eat it or release it?”

And add your own address or email information so you can receive a letter from ALS with the history of the fish – where it was tagged and how much it has grown – an American Littoral Society jacket patch, information about the fish tagging program and the satisfaction that you have made a contribution to marine fisheries science.

Dement likes to recruit “serious” recreational fishermen for the taggers, usually from fishing clubs. They know how to keep a fish from too much damage during the tagging process – not to handle the fish too much and get it back in the water as quickly as possible, he said. “When you catch a fish, what does it feel like? Yeah, slimy. That’s a mucus coating that is important to maintain because it keeps the fish safe from bacterial infections. If you intend to return a fish to the water, then use a wet rag, not your hands, to hold the fish while you remove the hook.”

Dement then supplies the catch numbers to the federal Marine Fisheries Bureau, and the information helps to determine the strength of a particular fishery.

“They (Marine Fisheries) get numbers off of commercial catches because boats are required to report their catches, and there are even ride-along officials to prove the numbers are correct,” he said.  “But how many fish are taken each year by anglers? That’s the mystery number.

“Fishery harvest issues are very complicated and difficult; it’s like how many clouds are there in the sky. Well, how about how many after some clouds eat other clouds or migrate off the map?”

But the really interesting part of the program is the migratory and incidental information that has been gathered.

“The longest time span a tag was on a fish was on a striped bass that was tagged and released from Northport, N.Y., on Nov. 8 in 1996 and was shot by a spear fisherman on Aug. 8, 2008, six years (later).

“The longest bluefish return was four years. It was tagged in Massachusetts and recaptured in New York,” said Dement.

Bluefish are one of the most popular recreational fish because they always seem to be available and abundant. The tagging program has helped scientists learn that small bluefish migrate north in spring from North Carolina up to Cape Cod, and move southward in winter. But larger adults, over 18 inches, have an inshore-offshore migration, moving into deeper parts of the ocean in winter. The larger bluefish seem to return to the same coastal areas year after year. In 2015, the last year data was compiled, 307 bluefish were tagged and six were recaptured.

Striped bass is perhaps the most prized fish to catch, with adult-sized males ranging from 18 pounds upward to 31 pounds while females can reach 49 pounds. In 2015, 3,893 striped bass were tagged, and 217 were recaptured. Striped bass are andromomous fish, which means they live in salt water but have to return to fresh water to spawn. “The Chesapeake (Bay) is the number one place where bass spawn,” said Dement. “The Hudson River is the second, and number three is the Delaware. Some do spawn in the Mullica, but it’s not well documented.”

So they move around a lot. On June 8, 2014, Staten Island Tuna Club member Guy Buono tagged a 44-inch striped bass at Sandy Hook; it was recaptured in March 2015 by a commercial fisherman in Maryland’s Pocomoke Sound in Chesapeake Bay.

A 20-inch striper was caught at Graveling Point in Little Egg Harbor on April 14, 2015, and tagged by Tom Valerio. It was then recaptured June 2, 2015, in Maine at the entrance to the Cape Cod Canal by angler Aaron Tewell.

A 19-inch bass was tagged off Stamford, Conn., in November 2012 by Fred “Mako Fred” Stunkel and caught in June 2015 off Kittery, Maine, and measured 23 inches.

Summer flounder saw 3,438 tagged in 2015 and 198 recaptured. Winter flounder grow slowly; data collected from one fish that was tagged showed it had taken eight years to grow from 11 to 26 inches.

Some other fish numbers: Dement’s favorite eating fish, black sea bass, were tagged 357 times, and 25 were recaptured; tautog, 1,157 tagged and 60 recaptured; Atlantic cod, 24 were tagged and none recaptured; weakfish, 24 tagged and one recaptured; red drum, 25 and two; scup, 28 and two; and windowpane flounder, 79 and one.

In all, 9,364 fish were tagged and 521 fish recaptured.

When looking at these numbers it’s clear cod and weakfish are not as prevalent as they were years ago. “Atlantic cod numbers are crashing,” said Dement. “You’ve seen pictures of the numbers of seals in the Northeast? There are thousands of them, and what do seals eat? Cod.”

“Weakfish numbers are going down,” he noted. “We have to manage a species before the species declines so much we can’t get it back.”

A packet of 10 tags costs $6 from the ALS program, and the anglers who buy them have a vested interest in maintaining a healthy population of fish and their sport of fishing into the future. “I work for the taggers. We don’t receive any funding from the government for this program,” said Dement. “The only persons I am beholden to are the recreational fishermen.”

The American Littoral Society promotes the study and conservation of marine life and habitat, protects the coast from harm and empowers others to do the same. Since 1961, the society has cared for the coast through conservation, education and advocacy. “Littoral” means the shore area determined from the middle dunes out to 40 feet depth in the ocean or river.

Dement’s office is based in Highlands. For more information, call 732-291-0056, go to or contact Dement at

— Pat Johnson

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