Cooperative Research Improves Fishery Science and Relationships

Jul 9, 2013

Rhode Island fisherman Joel Hovanesian points to the bumper sticker he says he created.
Credit Heather Goldstone / WCAI

Tensions between fishermen and the scientists and managers that oversee their industry are more than just unpleasant. They actually affect the quality of fishery research and management.

There’s a catch phrase that’s adorned the tailgates of pick-up trucks up and down the New England coast for years:

National Marine Fisheries Service: Destroying Fishermen and Their Communities Since 1976.

Joel Hovanesian claims to be the creator of the once-pervasive bumper sticker. He and long-time fishing compatriot Brian Loftes have other ideas for new bumper stickers, each of them more derogatory than the last.

The two say government fishery science is “garbage in, garbage out” and simply doesn’t reflect the abundance of fish they see out on the water.

“We don’t trust NOAA”

Some of Loftes’ and Hovanesian’s complaints focus on specific methods used by government researchers to assess the health of fish populations. Fishery scientists, on the other hand, say there are good reasons for using those methods, and that differences between fishermen’s experiences and scientists’ data are to be expected. After all, fishermen go where the fish are; scientists spread their effort around in hopes of getting the big picture.

But much of Loftes’ and Hovanesian’s disdain for fishery science stems from a deep mistrust of government and what they see as a conflict of interest - the fact that the scientists producing stock assessments are part of the government agency that sets fishing regulations, the same agency that’s been found guilty of abusing the power to enforce those rules.

To be clear, not all fishermen share Loftes’ and Hovanesian’s attitudes. But a vocal subset has been saying things like this for years.

Recently, it’s caught on with politicians, as well. In May, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley filed a lawsuit against NOAA claiming that recent cuts in cod catch limits are overly harsh and based on “flawed science.” And several Massachusetts lawmakers have called for faster, more accurate stock assessments.

Doing Their Level Best

The scientists who produce those assessments say that’s unrealistic, and betrays a lack of understanding of what goes into producing stock assessments.

To start with, NOAA runs two survey cruises annually. Each spring and fall, scientists spend two months fishing for whatever they can catch in pre-designated areas up and down the coast.

Back on land, there’s more work to do. Biological samples – things like ear bones – from fish caught during the surveys, as well as some landed by commercial fishermen, have to be collected, processed, and analyzed. Scientists also have to wait for the end of the fishing season to get total catch and by-catch numbers from commercial fishermen and the observers who ride along with them. All of that data is then fed into computer models that simulate fish populations.

Liz Brooks, a stock assessment scientist with the Northeast Fishery Science Center, says there’s no way they could do real-time - or even annual - assessments with current staff and resources. What’s more, Brooks says calls for more and faster assessments are actually counterproductive because scientists are left with no time to do the kind of research that could lead to better assessments.

Two Worlds Collide

Fishermen and scientists don’t have to be diametrically opposed. In fact, fishery science and management would work a lot better if they weren’t. That’s where cooperative research comes in.

Fishermen are inherently keen observers and they’re on the water year-round. That puts them in a position to see patterns and changes that scientists might miss. But fishermen may not have the tools to quantify trends and put them into broader context. That’s where scientists excel. By playing to each party’s strengths, cooperative research provides high quality data that address fishermen’s concerns.

Thanks in part to the cod crisis of the 1990’s (the New England Fishery Management Council used disaster relief funds to jump start collaborations), New England fishermen and scientists conduct more cooperative research than any other region in the country. Dr. John Hoey, director of the Northeast Fisheries Science Center’s Cooperative Research Program, says data provided by fishermen is “absolutely critical” to fishery science.

But better science is only half the equation. The other half is building trust. Cooperative research is built on mutual respect and forges relationships that, in some cases, span generations. Hoey says he’s seen relations in the groundfish industry improve, albeit slowly.

Realistically, conflicts are inevitable when an industry is running as close to the edge as New England’s groundfish fishery is. Several groundfish stocks are expected to hit rebuilding targets over the next few years, and that could significantly ease tensions. The multi-million dollar question is what the fishing fleet will look like when that day comes.

Listen to and explore all our WCAI radio reports for The Long Haul:

Part 1: New England's Fishermen Face a Challenge in Every Direction

Part 2: Cooperative Research Improves Fishery Science and Relationships

Part 3: Dwindling Baitfish Stocks Worry Fishermen and Regulators

Part 4: Protected Seals Raise Many Questions

Part 5: Combatting the Sea of Debris 

Part 6:  Not Just Fun, Recreational Fishing a Big Business for Massachusetts

Part 7:  Investigating Fish Contamination Leads to Questions About Genetics

Part 8: Climate Change Forces Reevaluation of Fishery Management

Part 9: Aquaculture on the Rise Across the Cape and Islands

Part 10: Shared Hopes for Our Fisheries' Future