GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

September 2, 2013

Pilot fish survey taps industry expertise

From Wire and Staff Reports
Gloucester Daily Times

---- — 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.

Because scallopers accidentally catch yellowtail, that flounder’s perceived weak status triggers catch limits that are lowered to protect it, and scallopers must restrict their fishing to avoid catching too much yellowtail and being penalized for exceeding the catch limit.

Fishermen say it’s been impossible for scientists to get accurate flatfish assessments because of where they’ve sampled the fish and the rockhopper nets they’ve used. Since surveys typically try to sample many species, the nets must catch them all. But the fishermen say the rockhoppers miss too many flatfish.

The pilot project focused only on flatfish and towed nets modified to better catch smaller flounder. The nets also were towed behind two commercial trawlers — one out of Falmouth and one from Point Judith, R.I. — rather than federal research boats that have used in the past, and drawn skepticism from fishermen and other industry backers.

Scientists also devised a scientifically sound way to do sample tows in areas where yellowtail were believed to be more plentiful, as fishermen had suggested.

The pilot survey was more expansive, covering 175 stations in Georges Bank compared with about 60 in a typical survey, said Steve Cadrin, a former federal fisheries scientist who works at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.

For such surveys to produce meaningful long-term results, the methods must be repeated over time, Karp said. That’s a potential problem, since the surveys cost about $500,000.

Finding the money is simply a matter of setting the right priorities, Cadrin said.

But he added he was encouraged by the collaboration between researchers and fishermen to make needed improvements in the stock assessments.