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New England Fishery Science is Top Notch

Jud Crawford is a science and policy manager for the Pew Environment Group

Determining the past, present and future health of wild fish in the ocean is the complex task that scientists at New England’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center face every day. As numerous outside reviews have revealed, this group is top notch, bringing the best available scientists and methods to bear on this challenging problem and embracing a well-developed system for external peer review of their work.

Trends in birth, growth and death of fish, and other ecological factors, are used to make the best possible determination of how many are in the ocean and how many can be caught by fishermen without harming the population. The job is complicated because the required data are difficult to collect and because fish live in a system in which many different kinds of animals interact. For example, herring are consumed by many larger species in addition to being a target of a commercial fishery.

Despite the high quality of New England’s world-renowned marine science, bashing the science is almost as popular as complaining about the weather. The fact is, anticipating the behavior of complex systems, whether marine or meteorological, is highly evolved, but ultimately imprecise.

Working together: observers collect samples from kept and discarded catch on fishing vessel (Credit: NOAA Fisheries Service/NEFSC/Fisheries Sampling Branch)

Fishermen may find that there are lots of fish where they are looking. Since their job is to locate them, this is perhaps no surprise—but certainly it is not a representative sampling technique. Elsewhere, scientists may discover, based on methodical sampling of a very large area, that there are fewer overall than there were in the past. Both can be “correct,” but fishermen finding fish does not necessarily indicate that there is a problem with the science. Fewer fish aggregated in a small area will mean full boats for a while. But catch limits must be based on the condition of the overall population if we are to avoid overfishing and have a sustainable future.

One key way to improve the quality of this science is to improve the quality of the data. We need to invest more in data collection, both by scientists on research vessels and by fishermen in cooperative research.

Monitoring programs should be strengthened by putting more observers on vessels and through the use of modern electronic systems. Data collected with such technology are essential to assessments of population size because monitors can provide an objective estimate of everything caught, both landed and discarded. Unreported catch must be eliminated since this introduces errors, increasing scientific uncertainty.

Ecosystem-based management takes into account the food web and the interactions between species within the ecosystem (Photo credit: Michael Fogarty and Jack Cook)

It is also important to reduce the time between when new scientific data is acquired and when it is used in setting catch limits. Managers need to base decisions on the most current numbers in order to reduce bycatch, rebuild depleted stocks and end overfishing.

The science is evolving all the time. Those who want better science should support the implementation of ecosystem-based approaches to management and increased government investment in data collection.


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