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Fishing for Data

January 1, 1998

Ocean scientists searching for ways to preserve the nation’s largest fisheries are turning to a previously untapped source of knowledge-the very fishermen who have depleted these fish stocks. In the process, they’re hoping to make allies out of fishermen, whose livelihoods depend on the researchers’ success.

In response to a growing fisheries crisis, in which dozens of the world’s most valuable and popular seafoods are now endangered, marine scientists have established a novel research project called GLOBEC (Global Ocean Ecosystem Dynamics) to study how climate changes and other factors affect populations of marine organisms. The multi-year program funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the National Marine Fisheries Service is focused on three sites: the northeast Pacific, the Antarctic region, and the Georges Bank fishery in the northwest Atlantic. Of these parallel efforts, the Georges Bank study is unique in its effort to draw commercial fishermen into the research process.

The potential partnership between scientists and fishermen has benefits for both sides. The researchers would get to take advantage of the fishing vessels; the fishing communities might learn about sustainable fishing practices, while participating in the global effort to save their jobs and their culture.

The immediate benefits will accrue to science. Researchers will need to take extensive samples of the waters at Georges Bank and adjacent regions and measure physical properties such as temperature, depth, and conductivity to see how populations of zooplankton, copepods (small marine crustaceans), and imperiled cod and haddock fluctuate in response to varying physical and biological conditions. “We need a tremendous amount of information, gathered over a broad area and many years, which is where the fishermen will come in,” notes Peter Wiebe, a biologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Mass., and a lead investigator in the Georges Bank project. “They’re out in places we don’t have the resources to get to, and it makes sense to enlist them,” he says, either to collect data in the midst of a normal fishing run or to go out on special research trips.

“Fishermen are quite receptive to this opportunity,” says Rollie Barnaby, himself a former fisherman who now works for the Sea Grant College Program at the University of New Hampshire (UNH). “Not only can they learn something and contribute to science, they can also earn a little extra money,” he says, which would be most welcome to New England fishermen who have been hard hit by the collapse of local fisheries as a result of overfishing.

Craig Pendleton of Saco, Maine, is one fisherman eager to get involved in the project. Owing to government restrictions, Pendleton could fish for cod, haddock, and other so-called “groundfish” for only 88 days in 1997, leaving him plenty of time for research-related endeavors. He believes that fishing vessels and their crews could offer an economical means of collecting data at sea. “We have a lot of experience in the water and are used to operating as cheaply as possible,” he says.

An equally important objective of the Georges Bank project is to improve relations between fishermen and researchers. “Fishermen need help understanding the biological reasons for the regulations they consider themselves to be inflicted’ with,” says biologist Ann Bucklin, director of the UNH Sea Grant Program. “The way to fix that problem is to get fishermen involved in the collection of the data that provide the basis for fishery management strategies and regulations.”

Although 70 scientists are participating in the project, the fishermen component is quite small-limited, so far, to a single year of funding, which will cover Pendleton, his crew, and technical advisors for several research forays through the end of 1997. Bucklin proposes to develop a network of 3 to 10 fishing vessels to collect data. That could happen as early as 1998, but will require additional funding.

Assuming the pilot project is a success, “there may be some creative ways of financing this activity.” Wiebe says. Apart from direct grants from the federal government, other options might include tax credits, contributions from the fish-processing industry, and extra fishing days granted to those taking part in the research effort.

Ultimately, Wiebe sees great potential for cooperative ventures of this nature. “A few years from now, the Georges Bank part of GLOBEC will be completed, but the need for this kind of information will still be here,” he says. Moreover, just as sustainable fisheries have to be established, environmental monitoring also has to be done in a sustainable way, he adds. “The experience gained through GLOBEC may show us how to do that.”

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