Gloucester Forum Offers Innovative Tech Ideas

By Lorelei Stevens, Commercial Fisheries News – October 2000

GLOUCESTER, MA – New technology is giving the fishing industry the tools to allow fishermen to participate in scientific investigation, exploration, and data gathering like never before.

How best to put these tools to use was the subject of the September 13 Gloucester Fisheries Forum, which was subtitled: “Closing the Digital Divide Between New Technologies and an Age Old Industry.”

During the course of the day, speakers from Massachusetts and Maine and even as far away as Washington state and Portugal described concepts ranging from cooperative research ideas still in the proposal stage to fledging data gathering programs and well-tested information-sharing systems that depend on state-of-the-art communication technologies.

Brian Rothschild, dean of the University of Massachusetts School of Marine Science and Technology (SMAST) and co-chairman of the Massachusetts Fisheries Recovery Commission, introduced several SMAST presenters who talked about the school’s ongoing effort to involve fishermen in research.

Kevin Stokesbury, a SMAST scientist, discussed the research work done jointly with the scallop members of the New Bedford-based Fisheries Survival Fund that eventually convinced the New England Fishery Management Council to allow a controlled scallop fishery in areas closed to protect groundfish.

Now SMAST is working with the Trawlers’ Survival Fund to bring New Bedford-area draggermen on board in much the same way through a proposed project to have draggermen collect not only data on fish catches, but on climate conditions too.

The project has been submitted to the Research Steering Committee of the New England Fishery Management Council, which has forwarded its recommendations to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) for projects to receive cooperative research funding. NMFS has said funding announcements will be made sometime in October.

Although still awaiting funding, Fatima Borges, a visiting scientist from Portugal, is already training fishermen to work in the project. She said at least 23 trawlers had indicated an interest in participating.

The study species will included cod, haddock, witch flounder, winter flounder, and yellowtail flounder and the focus area will be on Georges Bank.

The study is expected to produce high resolution maps of fish abundance by species and detailed analyses of environmental data, which will not only be useful to enhancing the quality of data used in current scientific models, but will, Borges said, “create a new model for integrating fisheries and climate data.”

Cod Tagging

Another SMAST project that is already underway is a cod-tagging effort. Long-time Marshfield, MA fisherman Bob MacKinnon joined SMAST in August to help with the cod-tagging work.

Under the project, 50,000 “spaghetti” tags and 100 temperature/depth recording tags will be placed in codfish caught by Massachusetts boats statewide.

In recent weeks, MacKinnon has been pounding the docks, trying to convince fishermen to take and use tag kits, and when fishermen are too busy fishing to actually get the tags on the fish, he has been going out with them to do the tagging himself.

“My job is to reach out to the fishermen and tell them how it works,” MacKinnon said, adding that he is convinced the project will lead to better management decisions in the future.

“These fish cross over that 42º line,” MacKinnon said, referring to the line that separates the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank cod stocks. “There aren’t traffic cops directing them back.”

Fishermen’s Role

Rothschild emphasized that one of the most important by-products of these projects, as well as the ongoing scallop work, is that they throw fishermen and scientists together and help break down some of the barriers between the two groups that often get in the way of effective fisheries management.

The training, both formal and informal, that SMAST is providing fishermen through projects will also produce a new kind of fishermen, something akin to paralegals in the legal profession, Rothschild said.

These factors, he predicted, will lead to a fundamental transformation in the way fishermen, scientists, and managers interact and how fisheries are managed. “The idea is to change the whole institution of fisheries management,” he said. “We want to trust the fishermen to work out regulations that are better. That’s the direction we’re going in.”

Warren Doty of Menemsha Basin Seafoods on Martha’s Vineyard, was in the audience for the SMAST presentations and Rothschild’s remarks.

“What a fascinating thing. I am really impressed,” he said. “We can’t keep managing the way we have been, single species. It’s so simple, but to hear an official stand up and say it is so impressive.”

David Pierce, acting assistant director of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, also discussed a Massachusetts Fisheries Recovery Commission proposal to establish a “sentinel fisheries” program in the state that would use information gathered by fishermen to enhance the state’s inshore trawl surveys.

Seattle Experience

John Gauvin, director of the Groundfish Forum, a Seattle-based trade association of 19 freezer trawlers that fish in Alaskan waters, told the forum audience that his members figured out a few years back that they had a choice — cooperate with each other or go out of business.

When faced with the shutdown of their entire flatfish fishery because they had exceeded a crab bycatch cap, the members, whose vessels, at 107′-160′, are considered the “little guys” in Alaska, agreed to share information on where they were fishing and what they were catching.

A system offered by Sea State Inc. of Vashon Island, WA allows the fishermen to transmit location and catch information, then sends back a color-coded chart to all participating vessels showing where crab bycatch numbers are high and where they are low.

Armed with the information, the fishermen can — and do — move toward areas with lower bycatch reports. As a result, the boats have been able to actually catch their flatfish quotas in recent years before being shut down because of crab bycatch.

“This program is now a default setting for all flatfish fisheries,” Gauvin said.

The Saco, ME-based Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance (NAMA), which was represented at the forum by Carla Morin, has been working to implement such a system for the northern shrimp fishery.

The Groundfish Forum works with the government, private industry, universities, and environmental organizations on other challenges facing its members.

Using a prize incentive, the forum put out a request for proposals to fishermen for a gear device to keep halibut out of flatfish nets. The winning entry, a halibut excluder device, works better than any one could have hoped for, Gauvin said.

The forum is also providing funding for a graduate student to do her Ph.D. dissertation work on the effects of trawl gear on flatfish habitat.

The images of “clear cutting” often used by environmental groups to describe the effect of bottom-trawl fisheries on the ocean floor is “not very applicable in my opinion,” Gauvin said. “These animals, we believe, are fairly well adapted to natural disturbance. We need to get this information out to the industry.”