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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.


5 Responses to New England Fishery Science is Top Notch

  • Joel Hovanesian says:

    Heres something thats not imprecise. For the vast majority of species, underharvesting,not overfishing is taking place here in New England. With the much heralded and Pew backed catch share plan,65% of the fleet is now tied to the dock. God only knows how many jobs lost throughout the fleet this has caused. Also the support industries such as fuel companies, ice houses, engine and twine shops,etc, etc. are struggling.

    This while we import 85% of the seafood we consume in America from nations that practice little or no conservation. 5% of the imports are inspected. Of that 5%, 65% is rejected beacause it is unfit for human consumption.

    While I agree there are many top class scientists at the Northeast Fisheries science Center, the truth is the data they are given is seriously flawed. This fact is irrefutable.

    The surveys done by government vessels are a joke and just contribute to the overall problem.

    What are we trying to do here, become dependant on foreign countries to feed us along with supply our energy needs?

    The pew funded ENGO’s have been disingenuous to and been lying to commercial fishermen and should take a long hard look at the toll their policies are having on the working men and women who risk their lives to bring the highest quality, freshest seafood to the American consumer. Shame on you all!

    • Talking Fish says:

      Joel Hovanesian’s comments speak to the genuine frustration that many fishermen are experiencing – hard catch limits, difficulty achieving full utilization of what is allowed, and a weak economy that is impacting all of us. The new system of Annual Catch Limits (ACLs) with accountability is not unique to New England, and was brought on by changes to the federal fisheries law, implemented during 2010 – these new limits would be a reality for New England fishermen even if there were no sector management system in place.

      Unfortunately, there is lots of rebuilding of fish stocks to be done in New England, and the underharvesting is due to the fact that these fish swim together and fishermen use very unselective gear, although gear technology is improving. Imports of sea food to the American market is a reality that has nothing to do with the New England harvests. We also export a lot of lobster and scallops elsewhere at high prices. We share the goal of increasing local consumer access to healthy, sustainably harvested New England fish.

      As far as the science goes, Mr. Hovanesian makes his concerns about the NMFS research survey clear. He’s right: the “garbage in, garbage out” rule applies even to the brightest scientists. But the data is coming from government and fishermen, and those in the fishery play a major role in determining the quality of that data stream – unreported sales or discarded catch can also seriously undermine the science. More can be done to improve all of these data streams, and this will benefit everyone.

      The community is paying a price for bad practices of the past – but a future with more vigorous fish populations does seem within reach now. We can’t really respond to the generalized and rather tired claim of how the conservation groups have lied to fishermen without any specifics.

    • Henry Hauch says:

      The latest Cod assesment highlights major problems in NOAA managed fisheries. With obvious problems in the new assesment, one has to wonder if the assesment is flat wrong, or Catch Shares failures are responsable for dramatic delines in the stock. Perhaps some of both. This obviously creates a paradox for groups like EDF that are pushing Catch Catch Shares, and at the same time Opposing a fix for the extreme data defeicency that has 75% of federally managed stocks with ZERO science based data, though groups like Pew keep touting a ‘Science Based’ management, even without the science! Most fisheries are ‘rebuilt’ or ‘rebuilding’ according to Kane Lubchenco, former EDF exec, and now NOAA director. Yet, known healthy fisheries are being closed….not due to a lack of fish, but simply a lack of reliable and current science based data. You see, the “Best Avaliable Data” allows old data, flawed data, incomplete data, and non-science based data to be used, if thts all there is. Fishermen are calling for mandated of current and reliable science, and groups including EDF and Pew have publicly OPPOSED this. Seems that fishermen are the ones now taking the lead to fix the fatally flawed science that is curently the “Status-Quo” in US fishery management. Any ENGO’s care to get behind fishermen and the real side of conservation on this? The time to take Guestimates out of fishery management has come!

  • Thaddeus Bigelow says:

    Two points are worth noting.

    1. Science may be “top notch” and still not be adequate for the existing legal and policy framework. The history of NE groundfish management is replete with dramatic changes in the perception of stock status that are not due to excessive over or under fishing. And if recent news reports are to be believed we are soon to experience another when the GOM cod assessment is completed. How managers are supposed to set catch limits when stock projections are completely unreliable is beyond me.

    2. Claims of “underfishing” are specious when fishing mortality remains above targets.

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