The Fishermen’s Alliance is once again collaborating with The Nature Conservancy (TNC) on important fisheries research. The current study concerns halibut, a highly prized and severely restricted species. A resurgence of halibut could be a harbinger of a healthier marine ecosystem and provide significant economic benefits for Cape Cod fishermen.
Chris McGuire, Marine Program Director for TNC in Massachusetts, is enthused about the two-pronged study, funded by a Saltonstall-Kennedy federal grant. “This could be a story of rebuilding” he says, “and I’m super excited about that.”
Impetus for the program emerged from years of anecdotal information from local fishermen, who after decades of decline have been seeing more halibut in the fishing grounds. The 2015 Federal trawl survey groundfish stock assessment updates, based on a very small sampling of this species, were rejected for fisheries management. The recommendation is to implement a new assessment model, do dedicated longline surveys for halibut (done effectively in Canada) and build a better understanding of both stock structure and age of maturity.
The first phase of the TNC study is biological sampling of up to 250 fish; participating fishermen have been trained to remove halibut gonads and inner ear calcium structures called otoliths. Fishermen’s Alliance specialized intern Rachel Marshall, a fisheries studies graduate from University of Rhode Island, says that these samples provide greater data on the age and maturity of fish and can suggest when in their lifecycle they are spawning.
The second aspect is tagging, using 22 pop-up satellite archival tags inserted by fishermen into back of a live halibut. Worn for almost a year, tags collect information on water temperature and depth, preprogrammed to release after approximately 11 months and transmit their information to satellite. If possible, a certain percentage of popped tags will also be retrieved to get valuable geo-tracking location information.
This benchmark information could reveal that the relatively small halibut stock identified in US waters is actually part of an enormous biomass surveyed in Canadian waters, says McGuire. “If so, it could change the harvest policy and benefit the local fleet.”
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