Tony Harold knows what it’s like to be a fish out of water. In fact, he’s made a career of it.
As the curator of the Fish and Invertebrate Collection at the College of Charleston Grice Marine Lab, the professor of marine biology has spent 23 years surrounded by hundreds of thousands of coastal and estuarine fishes – most pulled out of the waters of South Carolina and the South Atlantic Bight for undergraduate and graduate research projects and instruction, as well as for faculty/curator research at the College and other institutions.
“They are here for teaching and research purposes, so that students can get a firsthand understanding of each species and its characteristics and variations,” says Harold. “It may look like just a bunch of fish in jars, but each specimen is different – each one has a specific purpose in terms of teaching students and collecting data. And they’re categorized and classified accordingly.”
And there are plenty of fish in this floor-to-ceiling sea of assorted jars and bottles: The collection includes approximately 100,000 specimens of juveniles and adults, about 350,000 specimens of larval fishes, about 30,000 lots of larval material and about 5,000 lots of marine invertebrates representing a broad array of taxonomic diversity and geography.
“We pack them in here as efficiently as possible, but we’re still running out of space,” says Harold, adding that some of the specimens date back to the 1960s and that the collection is always growing. “Some of our specimens are from the American Natural History Museum or the Smithsonian – and many have been caught by students in our classes.”
Marine biology students are especially involved in the department’s sampling program, collecting invertebrate and fish specimens from all over the Charleston area. They also assist in identifying specimens and comparing their features, and are also involved in preserving tissue voucher samples using 95 percent ethanol or sarkosyl urea for DNA extraction.
“The samples are catalogued along with salinity, temperature, geographic position and other collection details, so we go through and take care of them systematically,” says Harold. “We have invested a great deal of time and effort into organization and maintenance. I owe a lot to the many student workers and volunteers who have assisted with maintenance over the years.”
He also owes a lot to his own passion for what he does.
“Fish make me happy. I love them. You could say I grew up in freshwater, but later migrated to the coast,” he smiles, recalling going fishing with his grandfather as a boy in Paris, Canada. “From the very first time, I loved it. Then I started making flies and lures and everything.
“From then on,” he adds, “I guess you could say I was hooked.”