Monkfish research could help fish, fleet

Jun 24, 2023 | Plumbing the Depths, News

Fishermen are working to improve monkfish research. Photo by David Hills/ Fishy Pictures

By Doreen Leggett

Knowing a big-mouthed, extra-terrestrial-looking fish was going to be the focus of her internship, Ana Brown spent time learning about all things monkfish before she landed at the Fishermen’s Alliance this spring.

What struck her most was not that the fish’s oil is used as a cordial in Japan, or that the lure hanging from the fish’s football-shaped forehead may reveal age; she was impressed by how commercial fishermen have pushed for its protection.

“It was the industry that organized and advocated for them and for a management plan,” Brown said. Management of the great-tasting fish has suffered from lack of data. A recent cut in harvest amounts, now postponed, highlighted the need for better information that Brown’s work will help provide.

Over three months, Brown will work with staff to improve monkfish management. Her work will help set the stage for a federally initiated project the Fishermen’s Alliance is conducting with fishermen and UMass Dartmouth’s School for Marine Science and Technology (SMAST).

Using federal Research Set Aside funding support, the program will develop a standardized catch per unit effort (CPUE) index for the commercial monkfish gillnet fishery to be used for stock assessment purposes.

Earlier this month, Brown was sitting at the Fishermen’s Alliance office in Chatham entering copious amounts of data to create multiple maps contrasting federal trawl survey information with monkfish catch data collected on fishing boats.

“There were 146,000 records on one sheet,” said Brown. For fishermen’s data, she had to remove all species other than monkfish before comparing years. She is focused on 2009 to 2022.

Brown, a graduate student at University of Miami Rosentiel School of Marine, Atmospheric, and Earth Science, has taken GIS courses, which helps, but the work is still time-consuming and labor intensive. It’s also very important, said Aubrey Church, policy manager for the Fishermen’s Alliance and lead on the project.

“She is verifying the industry’s perceptions with scientific data,” said Church.

Monkfish are a data poor species that can’t be aged, and the current stock assessment process does not incorporate fishing effort.

Church said initial dives into data are showing a significant disconnect between what the fishing industry is seeing and what the federal research vessel, named the R/V Henry B. Bigelow, is recording. The Bigelow can cover a huge swath of ocean, but during a portion of the spring it doesn’t go far inshore – and monkfish do during the summer months. “The data shows fishermen catching monkfish in April, May and June,” Church said. “Our hope is to bring awareness that there is a wealth of industry data out there, and industry data can provide higher spatial and temporal resolution to examine movements and distribution of monkfish.

“Given climate change, the fish may be moving and the Bigelow isn’t able to capture that,” added Church. “The Bigelow could be missing spring and fall migrations and we could end up with quotas that do not reflect the status of the resource.”

Another factor that can warp a stock assessment is the R/V Bigelow usually does two surveys a year, but because of COVID, mechanical problems  and staffing issues, some of those trips have been cut back or skipped.

“There was no 2020 fall data from the Bigelow,” said Brown.

“And the fishermen are out there every day,” added Church.

The Bigelow’s 2023 spring multispecies bottom trawl survey was supposed to have begun on March 15 and continue through May 26. Instead, “it began on May 8 and completed operations on May 24,” according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, confirming industry concerns.

“Sailing was delayed by issues encountered during the ship’s regular repair and maintenance period, reducing sea days by about 75 percent. Once at sea, operations were further reduced from 24 to 12 hours per day owing to a shortage of experienced ship’s crew.”

Commercial fishermen have repeatedly voiced concerns about incomplete surveys. If surveys are not accurate, managers can not determine how many fish are out there or accurately decide what the quota is.

“Anything that dilutes the influence of the Bigelow is a plus to me,” said Captain Greg Connors, one fisherman involved in the upcoming Monkfish RSA project.

The reason why information from fishermen hasn’t been used in the past is because it isn’t standardized, said Church. The Bigelow is designed to standardize for the vessel, fishing gear, fishing protocol, as well as time and area. This creates a standard baseline comparison across years.

Fishermen have different size boats, with different horsepower and different gear. Individual fishing decisions are incentivized by markets and constrained by regulations.

“Their catch rates are based on individual fishing decisions,” said Church. “Fishermen are smart and they make money when they catch fish.” Repeating the exact same locations year after year, when fish move, would be disastrous.

The Monkfish RSA project aims to standardize fishermen’s catch rates so they can be included in the management process.

“This aligns with the Fishermen’s Alliance’s mission of advocating for improved policy and supporting Cape Cod commercial fishermen,” said Brown.

For their time and involvement fishermen are able to access additional fishing days.

“Those RSA days are going to be a net positive for me and a handful of guys,” said Connors.

Church also noted fishermen are catching various sizes, while the Bigelow appears to predominantly catch small fish. “The disparity matters; abundance of larger, breeding, fish help researchers ascertain potential growth of the population. Even that ability is hamstrung because scientists don’t know how to age monkfish accurately.”

Fisheries biology, socio-economics, population dynamics and oceanography all fascinate Brown.

She got hooked on ocean conservation when she applied for an aquarium program to get Baltimore inner city kids involved in science. From sixth grade to her senior year, Brown joined weeklong trips along the East Coast.

“The aquarium was always giving me my ocean fix,” she said.

During high school summers, she stayed involved by getting a job with the aquarium, producing conservation-themed plays with other students.

“We would visit all the libraries and perform,” she said.

As an undergraduate at Goucher College in Maryland, she switched from marine biology to Environmental Science. By happenstance, she went to a fisheries conference to help a friend who was presenting.

“This is what I want to be doing,” Brown recalled thinking. Her final project became a cost benefit analysis of reducing blue shark bycatch in the Atlantic swordfish fishery.

When it came time to do her internship for a Masters degree, she reached out to the Fishermen’s Alliance, which she had heard about when she interned with Atlantic White Shark Conservancy in 2019.  AWSC and the Fishermen’s Alliance partner on projects, including the Alliance’s Pier Host program.

In addition to data crunching, Brown is organizing the “Small Boats. Big Science” speaker series and has taken a part-time job as a Seasonal Fisheries Technician with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, collecting recreational fisheries data. Brown hopes to also go on as many fishing trips as she can.

“My previous experiences have all been related to environmental education and science outreach,” she said. “I am excited that this internship provides me the opportunity to combine fisheries management and working with people.”

Her hope is the project “will play an important role in improving monkfish management and will show that industry samples and their fishing effort should be included within management.”



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