Tautog, the favorite catch of many a sportfishing enthusiast, recently helped University of Delaware graduate student Richard Wong land a $1,000 research scholarship from the Delaware Mobile Surf Fishermen.
A master's degree candidate in marine biology-biochemistry at the University's Graduate College of Marine Studies (CMS) in Lewes, Wong received the scholarship -- the first ever awarded by the Lewes-based recreational fishing association -- to support his research on the habitat preferences of young tautog.
Tautog represent an important recreational and commercial fishery along the East Coast. While adult tautog inhabit reef areas, the "juvenile" fish, which are under a year old and less than 3 inches long, are believed to spend the first summer of their lives in eelgrass and sea lettuce beds. However, since there are no eelgrass beds in lower Delaware Bay and only small areas of sea lettuce beds, young tautog here may rely on artificial reefs, shipwrecks, and other craggy areas for shelter just as the adult fish do.
"Knowing what the young tautog prefer will help us determine if there is enough of that habitat available to support a larger tautog population in Delaware Bay," Wong notes.
Through sampling experiments this summer, Wong will begin identifying what habitats juvenile tautog actually use in Delaware Bay. Then, he will determine which of these dwellings contribute best to the young fish's growth. His last step will be to demonstrate, through a series of lab experiments, which habitats are preferred by the young fish.
Wong says he got hooked on tautog in the summer of 1992 when he took a job as a fisheries technician for Rutgers University and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) at Sandy Hook, New Jersey.
"One of my primary responsibilities was to catch enough juvenile tautog for a joint project they were conducting," Wong says. "In doing so, I became intrigued by how much these fish look and behave like coral reef fish," he says. "While adult tautog are dark in color, young tautog are bright green so they can blend in with the sea grass in their nursery areas. These extraordinary little fish also have an odd behavior of always needing to be by a structure, which can make them really hard to find at times," he notes with a grin.
A native of North Brunswick, New Jersey, Wong received his bachelor's degree in fishery science and natural resource management from Rutgers University. He says he selected CMS for his master's degree program because his advisor, Dr. Timothy Targett, conducts research on tautog and other reef fish. Now, under Dr. Targett's guidance, Wong is getting set to begin his own tautog research.
"It was great to have the freedom to design my own research project about tautog, submit it for the competition, and receive the scholarship from the Delaware Mobile Surf Fishermen," Wong says. "I'm really excited about it!"
In addition to the scholarship, Wong also recently received his second Presidential Fellowship from the University of Delaware in recognition of academic excellence.