Robots to go deep to reveal more about the flounder

Just how freaky is the flounder? All of a sudden in 2004, fishermen on the Myrtle Beach piers began pulling the flatfish in one after another. They were catching the bottom feeders on the surface, with bobbers.

"The flounder were gulping at the surface," said Denise Sanger, research assistant director for the S.C. Sea Grant Consortium.

That freak, bounty catch of distressed fish launched research that includes trying to determine where flounder spawn offshore and what effect sea temperature changes have on the larvae moving inshore.

And then there is the latest study — with robots. Two "autonomous underwater vehicles" were launched Tuesday into Long Bay, a bowl-like depression off Myrtle Beach, to research why dissolved oxygen levels fell so low in 2004, driving the fish to the surface.

The unmanned vehicles will run on their own for miles and days, moving up and down to collect data that researchers hope will help fishermen recognize the conditions when oxygen depletes.

"The nice thing about the robots is, you can set them a course and let them go," Sanger said. The consortium is sponsoring the program.

The flounder's life cycle is well-documented, said Marcel Reichert, a fisheries scientist with the Department of Natural Resources, where two other research projects are under way.

Not a lot else is known about them, such as how many might be out there or where, he said.

"We don't know whether the (Long Bay) flounder were herded to that area or whether they're there in those massive numbers."