Why accurate fish stock assessments matter

Reflections by Melissa Kogut, executive director, Chefs Collaborative

NOAA Ship R/V Henry B. Bigelow

Who should we be paying attention to when it comes to getting definitive information about the health of our domestic fish stocks?  Government scientists, ocean conservation groups and NGO’s (non-governmental organizations), fishermen…?  All the parties play important roles in contributing data and analysis.  The fact is that it’s complicated!  And, it’s no wonder there is a lot of tension about the topic – the state of our seafood supply and livelihood of fishermen are at stake.

So when I received an invitation to participate in the Marine Resource Education Program, a two-day course in fish population science, I jumped at the chance.  The program was developed to bridge the gap of understanding between New England’s fishing industry leaders and the fishery science community.  I set out to better understand why there are discrepancies in fish stock assessments and differences of opinion among the stakeholders.   It was also an opportunity to better understand the perceptions of commercial fishermen.

For organizations like Chefs Collaborative, that educate chefs about cooking with sustainable seafood, I believe we have a responsibility to see the big picture in all its complexity.

The training program, sponsored by NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and led by a team based at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, seeks to empower fishermen with information so that they can effectively participate in the management process and to facilitate trust and relationships among the various stakeholders.

I had plenty of opportunity to talk with commercial fishermen and got an earful.  Fishermen, who have had to roll with new policies and catch limits, bear a huge burden when they must adapt to ever-changing rules.  (For example, with the new sector rules for groundfishing in the northeast, permits are issued to participating fishing vessels based on their fish landings-history over a 10-year period.  One fisherman told me that he was forced to sell one of his fishing vessels for well below what he still owed the bank because it hadn’t targeted groundfish heavily during those 10 years and therefore didn’t qualify for an adequate quota.)

There is an overall perception in the fishing community that their opinions do not matter and that when they go to meetings and express their opinions nothing happens.   It was clear to me in listening to their questions and comments that fishermen know a lot about the habits of fish, where they are, and how to catch them.  There is often frustration expressed that fish stocks are assessed from faulty data – that scientists look for fish in the wrong places or use the wrong gear – or that conclusions are drawn about overfishing when there may be other explanations for the absence of fish (such as the fact that fish move around).  Fishermen have useful information to contribute  and scientists encourage them  to be actively a part of the assessment process.

One of the big questions from fishermen was, “why does it take so damn long between when data is collected and when it’s used in management?”  They complain that catch limits are often set using dated information.  We saw first hand one of the reasons it takes so long – there is such a volume of data to be gathered and analyzed.  Quality control is essential for accuracy in assessments – it can’t be rushed!  (Of course, once the data is released, the policy-making  takes a long time too.)

Taking out the otolith at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC)

Just as an example, we witnessed one tool scientists use to determine the age of a fish – removing and examining the otolith, a small hard structure found in a fish’s head (we have them in our heads as well – it’s what gives us balance).  Once removed, the otoliths are sliced and mounted in plastic, labeled for each fish, and then  are viewed under a microscope to count the rings (just like counting tree rings).  This information is compared with other information about each fish to give a complete picture.  50,000 to 100,000 otoliths are aged each year for dozens of fish species just to understand the current population structure!

NOAA maintains a warehouse with millions of biological samples (ear bones, stomach contents, etc.) and reams of data on catch and distribution, collected over decades!

After two days of seeing scientists at work – at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC) in Woods Hole, MA, at the NOAA gear facility and Northeast Observer Program in Pocasset, MA, and on the R/V Henry B. Bigelow – NOAA’s research vessel – in Newport, RI, I was blown away by the commitment of the scientists to getting it right.  The fishermen in the program with me were as well.

What did I walk away with after seeing all this science and research in action and talking to fishermen?

  • A renewed commitment to understanding the complexity of assessing our fish stocks and how to manage them.  It’s not as simple as looking at a red, green, yellow seafood watch list – though these lists provide some helpful basic information.
  • Fishermen need to be actively part of the process when setting policy for managing our fish stocks.  At the end of the day, stewardship is about routine, daily decisions.
  • NOAA needs adequate funding to do its important research.  The better and more thorough the data the more that policy will be set based on complete information.
  • Chefs Collaborative does a pretty good job helping our member chefs understand that they have access to more information than the average consumer and what questions to ask.  A fisherman or trusted seafood purveyor can tell a chef about how and where the fish was caught and the state of the stock.
  • Chefs can play an influential role in supporting fishing communities as well as in shaping policy.  Many of our members around the country can share stories about how they are doing that.

I returned home with feelings of respect for the fishermen and scientists who work hard and are good at what they do.  We need home-grown fishing businesses to thrive because these fishermen have great knowledge about sustainable fishing practices and if we lose them we lose that expertise and a way of life for good.  Quality research, participation of fishermen in accurate stock assessments and policy-making, and sound policy based on reliable data will go a long way in successful fish stock management.  But, overfishing is not the only consideration.  Addressing the causes of pollution and climate change are major factors as well.

Check out Green Chefs, Blue Ocean, the online sustainable seafood tutorial for chefs and culinary students developed by Chefs Collaborative and Blue Ocean Institute for more information.

Also, we welcome your thoughts about addressing issues around sustainable seafood.

Posted by: Chefs Collaborative

One Response to “Why accurate fish stock assessments matter”

  1. Pat Beck Says:

    Well written piece. Thank you. I’m writing a book on Rhode Island’s local food system and heard Capt. Aaron Williams bring up exactly the points you state so clearly. In the past gov’t research vessel trawled ineffectively and came up with a false low assessment of flatfish (fluke or flounder). The large boat needed to maintain a minimum speed that was incompatable with the gear, causing the sampling net it was dragging to close up. A commercial fisherman close by outfished the government vessel by a 50:1 margin but that fact was not noted in the data. So sampling protocol has been an issue. Quotas based on catch history place an unfair burden on fishermen who sometimes have to buy quota allotment to make a trip worthwhile and then hope the price remains high enough to justify the effort. In addition, pulse fishing focused on few species for shorter periods of time concentrates effort and reduces the price paid to the fishermen as buyers speculate on large supply of a perishable product. Aaron noted that sometimes he needs to stay out longer to make a trip worthwhile burning additional fuel and putting his crew at risk more days at sea. Good fresh seafood is part of our regional heritage – we need to accurately identify the state of the resource, assess threats to animals and people and work to support future long-term conservation of local ecology and local economy.

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