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Fisherman-Scientist Partnerships

This post is by Mr. Brian Smith and Dr. Jason Link, fishery biologists, and Mr. Frank Almeida, the Deputy Director with the NOAA Fisheries Service’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Woods Hole, Mass.

Scientists often partner with fishermen to do on-the-water research. Findings are often published, and our knowledge of marine life is always expanded and deepened.

Scientist Brian Smith (left) and fisherman Ted Ligenza conduct research on cod. (Photo: Frank Almeida)

From October 2001 through June 2004, fisherman Ted Ligenza from Chatham, Mass. and fishery scientists from the NOAA Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Woods Hole, Mass. collaborated on a research project titled “The Trophic Ecology of Atlantic Cod: Insights from Tri-monthly, Localized Scales of Sampling.” Through continued partnership, a final report (produced in August of 2004) and a research article in the Journal of Fish Biology (Smith et al. 2007) were published.[1]

The high quality and far-reaching extent of the fisherman-scientist relationship was an important aspect of this research project. The demanding nature of the project’s field sampling detail could not have been accomplished without strong interests from the fisherman and the scientists involved. There were many lessons learned, including:

    1. Fishermen expect, and tend to be, jacks-of-all-trades; scientists tend to be specialists.


    1. Fishermen are very observant, however, not all observations are useful nor all questions or hypotheses worth pursuing. Open discussions between participants and an understanding of all points of view are critical to making decisions and ‘buying into’ those decisions.


    1. Experiences, observations and anecdotes do not necessarily mean data. The collection of data to support the experiences, observations and anecdotes is often laborious and complicated.


    1. Trust needs to be earned by listening, by considering and including all opinions and ideas, by demonstrating competency and consistency, and by following through on commitments.


    1. Fishermen and scientists both like to tell stories, but we often use different styles and methods.


    1. To a fisherman, catch is $$; to a scientist, time is $$. We have found that we needed to devote more time to the planning and execution of the project than we expected. Our fishing industry partner was more likely to have his schedule revolve around the project than the scientists.


    1. Flexibility is a key to the success of any cooperative project.


    1. Safety is important – period.


    1. A day fishing does not necessarily equal a research day. It is important to consider all aspects of the fishery regulations and how they impact not only the fisherman but also the ability of the cooperating scientists to carry out the project.


    1. Our fishing industry partner is extremely curious and observant.


    1. Our fishing industry partner is very enthusiastic about learning and conducting scientific research on fish ecology.


    1. Scientists have had difficulty understanding how much pressure fishermen are under to make a living at their job while complying with often complicated fishery regulations – and fishermen often do not understand how complicated and involved doing science can be.


On many levels, the fisherman and scientists were able to share their own expertise, teaching and learning from one another over the duration of the project. As a result, a relationship of trust was built, allowing for enhanced participation from each party.

[1] Smith, B.E., Ligenza, T.J., Almeida, F.P., and Link, J.S. (2007). The trophic ecology of Atlantic cod: insights from tri-monthly, localized scales of sampling. Journal of Fish Biology 71:749-762.


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