Fishermen Help Scientists Study Fisheries Health

By SARAH SCHUMANN/ecoRI News contributor

SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Often critical of what they see as gaps in the information used to determine restrictions on their catch, commercial fishermen are now personally helping to plug those gaps. Rhode Island’s Commercial Fisheries Research Foundation (CFRF), which pairs fishermen with scientists to carry out fisheries research, recently presented the results of five joint investigations.

Jeremy Collie, Ph.D., of the University of Rhode Island shared new knowledge about seafloor habitat and fish assemblages in Block Island and Rhode Island sounds. The state’s 2010 Ocean Special Area Management Plan (SAMP) highlighted the increasing importance of this area for multiple uses.

“In doing the Ocean SAMP, we found that there were big data gaps,” Collie said. Collie’s team, which included fishermen James Ruhle and Michael Marchetti, used sonar and trawl nets to identify associations between physical characteristics, such as temperature and depth, and fish distribution. This research will help the state predict possible impacts of new uses in this area and identify areas that should be off-limits to development.

Collie acknowledged the benefit the fishermen’s vast experiential knowledge, admitting that “sometimes what we’re finding seems second-nature to the fishermen, and I feel kind of awkward showing data. But it is important to quantify and document this information.”

Another highlight of the Jan. 24 session was Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences’ North East Area Monitoring and Assessment Program (NEAMAP). The NEAMAP trawl survey was initiated four years ago to address a shortage of information regarding fish stocks in near-shore oceanic waters. These waters, too far from shore to be included in state surveys and too shallow to be included in federal surveys, are some of the prime areas used by fishermen. In fact, industry may know these waters better than anyone else.

“Surveying places like Block Island Sound is impossible without industry expertise,” said Capt. Ruhle, whose F/V Darana R performs the entire survey, from Cape Cod to Cape Hatteras.

But putting fishermen and scientists on board the same boat doesn’t mean they will see eye to eye. James Gartland of the NEAMAP scientific team spoke fondly of the “spirited discussions” he routinely had with Ruhle, a longtime commercial fishermen. But resolving those conflicts brought them closer, both parties recalled.

“When you’re dealing with people who recognize you for the expert that you are, and they’re able to take that data and transfer it into something useful, that benefits the whole industry,” Ruhle said.

Additional presentations at the event focused on surveys of southern New England yellowtail and winter flounder populations by fishermen and scientists from the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, and on a study to estimate discard mortality from the reflex reaction ability of caught fish.

Like the NEAMAP survey, independent fish surveys such as these are intended to complement existing state and federal surveys, which are carried out year after year and form the basis of stock assessments. Though sporadic, independent surveys are expected to become more relevant as fisheries science becomes more complex, scientists say.

“The evidence is all around that there’s a breakdown in the conventional stock assessment models,” said Mark Gibson of the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM). Citing climate change, new marine diseases and a decrease in fish landings as a percentage of total fish mortality, Gibson said independent surveys have a valuable role to play in removing some of the uncertainty from large-scale stock assessments.

Scientists also said the knowledge of fishermen is becoming more vital in filling holes in scientific knowledge.

“Our surveys are just not performing as they used to,” said Steve Cadrin of the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth. “That’s where we can really draw on the local expertise of fishermen to identify what things are missing.”

CFRF projects are made possible through support from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Between last year and this year, CFRF has sponsored 25 cooperative research projects in southern New England.