Ocean scientists, searching for ways to save the nation's fisheries, are turning to a previously untapped source of knowledge the very fishermen who helped deplete those fisheries. In the process, they're hoping to make allies of fishermen whose livelihoods depend on successful fisheries restoration research. The growing partnership between scientists and fishermen offers benefits to both sides. Researchers take advantage of widely distributed fishing vessels as platforms for data collection. Fishermen have new work at sea and an additional source of income at a time when their regular fishing income is reduced.
The two main questions concerning the health of fisheries, says Cliff Goudey, who directs the Center for Fisheries Engineering Research at MIT. "Where are the fish, and when and where do they need protection?" The answers derived to date, he claims, are based on inadequate information.
The only regular source of scientific data on fisheries has been the semiannual trawl surveys conducted by the National Marine Fisheries Service. Now that there's a push to manage "ecosystems as a whole," rather than just looking at individual species, Goudey says, "we'll need more detailed information about the interaction of species and their habitat, much more detailed information than can be collected through traditional federal surveys alone." The commercial fishing fleet, hundreds of vessels strong he adds, offers a potential source of fish abundance data that is only beginning to be tapped.
The Northeast Consortium (based at the University of New Hampshire) has funded more than 150 research projects that have engaged more than 300 fishermen and 100 scientists. Since its founding in 1999 most of these projects relate either to stock assessments or to designing and testing "conservation gear", devices aimed at minimizing bycatch. Fishermen have been very supportive of cooperative research ventures, says the consortium's associate director, Troy Hartley. "For them, it's a way to generate some supplemental income, teach scientists about fishing, and learn about sustaining the resource over the long haul."
A single bluefin tuna, which can weigh more than 1,000 pounds, often fetches more than $10,000 in today’s market, and that financial incentive has contributed to the fish’s demise.