Passport to Nature

The Captain's Quest

“Where we’re going this morning was once a reef measured in square miles. What’s left can be measured in square yards.” — Captain Monty Hawkins

By Daniel White

“It is a stunningly beautiful morning,” says Captain Monty Hawkins. “It’s not always the case that the view from my office is this perfect.”

For the past 34 years, Captain Monty’s office has been the wheelhouse of a fishing boat. On this summer morning, Monty is scanning the shimmering Atlantic waters off the coast of Ocean City, Maryland, from the bridge of the Morning Star. Down on the lower deck, Monty’s clients can expect his experience to translate into the thrill of black sea bass, summer flounder and tautog tugging on their lines from the seafloor.

Another quarry, though, has eluded Captain Monty despite years spent in pursuit: serious attention from fishery managers and marine scientists. Monty’s message did, however, catch the ear of The Nature Conservancy and is starting to catch on more broadly. Together with our marine partners, we're seeking to conserve critical habitat on which fish — and Monty’s livelihood — depend.

What is this habitat? Cold-water coral reefs.

What’s that — you didn’t know our mid-Atlantic Ocean even has coral reefs? And therein lies the problem. How do we even begin to conserve a habitat that, in the official record, doesn’t exist?

A Coral Conundrum

“You can turn the annals of science inside out — you will not find any mention of our coral reefs in the hard science,” Monty says. Squeezed into the wheelhouse as Monty explains this conundrum are reporters Sandy Hausman of NPR affiliate WVTF and Tim Wheeler of the Baltimore Sun, along with Jay Odell, who leads the Conservancy’s Mid-Atlantic Seascape team.

“It’s astounding, in this day and age, that scientists have better maps of the surface of Mars than we do of the seafloor underneath us right now,” Jay says. He acknowledges that early drafts of our conservation plan followed the scientific literature, which described an almost uniformly sandy seafloor.

Monty had seen the plan, and when he heard about a meeting to discuss it, he sacrificed a payday for a chance to change minds. “I actually turned my boat around, refunded my clients and drove to that meeting,” he says.

“So we started coming out here with Captain Monty, dropping his camera gear and watching the screen fill up with the beautiful oranges and yellows of cold-water coral,” Jay says. “We’ve been working with him ever since to translate his extensive knowledge onto maps and then use those maps to inform the regional planning process that’s just getting started now.”

Monty cuts the engines and announces a brief stop at “Jimmy’s Reef.” Mates Jake Shaffer and Jake Knox – “Yes, I hired a ‘pair of Jakes,’” Monty says — quickly drop two dozen concrete “oyster castles,” building on more than 10,000 already deployed offshore. Though the castles were designed for oyster restoration, Monty saw ideal building blocks for coral reefs as well. Coral will grow if you provide a foundation, he explains. “You can’t stop it.”

Remnants of the Unknown Reef

The relative ease of restoring coral only seems to add to Monty’s frustration with the status quo of fisheries management. Unscientific regulations, he argues, not only unwittingly stifle fish productivity, but also threaten his livelihood, while ignoring habitat and the legacy of destruction from past commercial fishing practices.

“I mean these are coral reefs in 80 -100 feet of water just off the coast of Maryland, Delaware and Virginia. They’re beautiful places, but they’ve been torn apart," Monty says, referring to past decades of unregulated bottom trawling and dredging.

"Where we’re going this morning was once a reef measured in square miles. What’s left can be measured in square yards. That might’ve been pretty important to fish,” Monty adds with a rueful laugh.

“We’re trying to figure out how much coral patch habitat remains out here,” Jay says. “We know what is left is significant and needs to be conserved, but first we need to know where it is.”

Whatever Jay is about to say next is swallowed by a sudden screech and a chorus of shouts from the deck below.

Dolphins and Flounders and Sea Bass, Oh My

As all eyes on board turn to the screaming reel of a trolling rig, the two Jakes once again spring into action. Knox hands off the rod to a young angler named Doug, who reels in a 20-pound mahi-mahi painted in iridescent blues and greens. This lucky strike en route to Monty's target sites seems a good omen for the day of bottom-fishing ahead.

A short time later, we’re overtaken by a pod of Atlantic spotted dolphins. They disappear almost as suddenly as they appeared, but then Monty announces over the loudspeaker that they’re directly under the bow. He's cut the engine to about six knots, enabling the dolphins to surf the waves created by the bow slicing through the water.

Everyone scrambles forward and stretches over the railing to watch as at least five dolphins put on a 10-minute show. When Monty stops the boat, the dolphins mill around the bow for several moments, seemingly disappointed that the game ended so soon. But for the anglers on board, the fun is only beginning.

Over the course of the afternoon, Monty will drop anchor over a series of shipwrecks and patches of coral. By the time we return to dock around 4 p.m., the smiling anglers on board have reeled in plenty of sea bass, along with several flounders and red hake, for a hearty fish fry back home.

As the customers disembark the Morning Star, a team of divers with camera gear prepares to board. Monty’s quest to document, protect and restore the precious coral habitats that sustain reef fish goes on.

“Over the next year, we’ll have an explosion of new mapping,” Jay says. The goal will be to distill terabytes of data to reveal the mid-Atlantic’s most essential places for people and fish. “Rather than locking up nature, we’re talking about eyes-wide-open decisions about how we can keep using our ocean without using it up.”

Monty sums up the essence of the task ahead: “What we need to do is turn the ocean blue and fill it with fish.”


Based in Charlottesville, Virginia, Daniel White is a Conservancy senior writer and editor of Passport to Nature.


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