Scientists have completed a pilot project to measure the health of flatfish species off New England that relied heavily on the expertise of fishermen, right down to using their trawlers — a step fishing advocates and federal lawmakers have been urging for several years.
The NOAA scientific survey comes amid intense criticism of traditional scientific methods for counting fish.
Fish sampling surveys provide critical data for assessing the health of fish populations, which are at the core of fishing rules. Critics say the assessments have proven to be deeply flawed and it’s wrong to use them as the basis for setting the struggling industry’s catch limits when, until recently, rank-and file fishermen who say they continue to observe abundant and healthy fish stocks have had no input into the work.
Scientists say their overall methods are sound, but they acknowledge some consistent problems, said Bill Karp, the Northeast’s chief federal fisheries scientist.
The pilot survey was conducted between Aug. 15 and 26 in Georges Bank, southeast of Cape Ann and about 100 miles east of Cape Cod.
Some 17,000 square miles of ocean bottom make up Georges Bank. A good chunk of it is now in Canadian waters, plus the distance to the grounds make it largely off limits to Gloucester’s day-boat groundfishing vessels.
But the survey focused on flatfish, such as flounder, and was adjusted from typical surveys to address many of the industry’s consistent criticisms, including by using a different vessel and different nets and sampling fish in different places.
Karp said researchers need time to determine if the new methods hold promise, “but at first blush, I think that that’s true.”
The survey focused heavily on yellowtail flounder, whose stock assessments have been consistently inaccurate — drawing questions even from John Bullard, NOAA’s Gloucester-based northeast administrator. The health of the yellowtail flounder stocks also affects the lucrative scallop fleet, the primary cash harvest for New Bedford, Gloucester’s partner as the twin capitals of the Northeast fishing industry.