By Doreen Leggett
Although it was more than a decade ago, Aubrey Ellertson Church has clear memories of standing at the Chatham Fish Pier with other fisheries observers waiting to be picked up by boats they were assigned to that day.
Church lived outside of Boston at the time, working out of ports from Maine to New Jersey gathering data about fishing trips used to help monitor the health of fisheries.
“I remember Chatham being a cool port to go into,” she said.
Observers aren’t always popular; they can be seen as intrusive and a symbol of regulations that fishermen believe are wrong-headed. Church was on the receiving end of some of that frustration, but most of her experiences were good.
“I joke with fishermen today that the way they treated me inspired me to go into fisheries and advocate,” Church, 34, smiled, sitting in the office of the Fishermen’s Alliance only a few miles from the pier, having started as policy manager for the non-profit.
“Fishermen are an invaluable resource for the successful stewardship of our oceans, but too often they are left out of policy decisions that affect their communities and livelihoods,” she added.
John Pappalardo, chief executive officer of the Fishermen’s Alliance, said Church, who lives in Falmouth, is ideal for the role. He describes her as community-minded, with real-life experience coupled with an advanced degree. She also understands science and the role it plays in public policy.
Her background, and knowing fishermen up and down the coast, will be essential as she tracks the ever-growing load of federal regulations fishermen contend with.
“Rules that determine how much fishermen work and when they can work change every year and they change in relation to the environment,” said Pappalardo. “Fishermen don’t have enough time to catch the fish and participate in the management process. She will be their voice.”
In her first month on the job, Church has been connecting with fishermen to understand their priorities as well as attending regional events, from New England Fishery Management Council meetings to the Maine Fishermen’s Forum.
Her entire career has been connected to the fishing industry, though she could have gone into the teaching profession.
Church grew up in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, about 20 minutes out of New York City. Both her parents worked in the city; her dad as a scenic art designer for the Metropolitan Opera and her mother running her own acting business, mainly coaching teens.
She would go to New York to see a play, visit Central Park, but that was about it.
“I was never much of a city girl,” she said.
What she did love was summers when her family, including younger brother, would head up to vacation in Acadia National Park in Maine.
“We did a lot of hiking along the coastline,” she said. “It was the tidal pools that were the coolest thing for me. I first fell in love with urchins and nudibranchs.”
Church was fascinated how resilient tide pool denizens had to be and how they fit into the wider ecosystem.
That led to summers at the Acadia Institute of Oceanography on Mount Desert Island, getting scuba certified, and a week on a research/sailing school vessel through the Sea Education Association.
That experience opened up her eyes to the variety of careers on the water, there was much more than marine biology.
“It was such a cool opportunity to handle scientific equipment as a high school sophomore,” she said.
Although Church looked at several schools in Maine, she ended up going to Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania’s Amish country.
She was of two minds about a career: teaching underprivileged children or following her passion for marine science.
Through her undergraduate program, Church had done a semester abroad in Turks and Caicos with the School for Field Studies where she worked with artisanal spear fishermen harvesting Nassau grouper. They dove deep without tanks and used spears attached to what looked like large rubber bands. That was her introduction to working with local fishermen.
“They cared deeply for their marine resource and wanted to sustain their livelihood,” Church said.
She would go down to the docks and sample the catch, talk about the spawning cycles of grouper and how that related to harvesting. Then they’d go play basketball.
“The community feel of the whole island, it was great, and it was a pristine environment,” Church said, referring to South Caicos.
When she graduated she applied to teach in Maryland and to work as a fisheries observer. She got both jobs, choosing to become an observer.
“I loved meeting fishermen. I did day trips mostly, but also some of the longer ones, where you get detached from society. When I used to get off the boat and go back to “normal life” I would go through a set of withdrawals: from the ocean, from the routine, and from the disconnect from society.”
As she collected information about species being caught, discarded, and other information, she also learned about the variety of gear used in New England – longline, bottom trawls, dredges, gillnets.
Church said it became clear fishermen are responsible for far more than fishing. They have to pay attention to changing weather, species, markets, regulations, the list goes on.
“They have to be able to adapt to all things at all times, under the most trying circumstances,” she said.
Church worked as an observer from June 2011 until August 2013, leaving Brookline at 10 p.m. or before to get to the dock an hour before a 2 a.m. departure.
“Make sure you are always early, never late,” she said.
Going into her second winter, some fishermen kidding her about the long hours and cold, she was offered a promotion. She spent the next few years acting as a spokesperson for the observer program, mentoring observers and double-checking data.
“You make sure their numbers are right, and their species identification is right. You don’t want to harm the quota,” she said, referring to the amount of a specific fish species allowed to be caught.
She enjoyed public outreach and found it important to dispel the stereotypical notion of fishermen taking whatever they could from the ocean, offering instead the reality of fishermen making a living feeding families and communities.
In 2016, Church realized she missed working directly with fishermen. She began looking at new possibilities.
“I think I just searched ‘jobs working with fishermen’,’” she said with a laugh.
She ended up at Commercial Fisheries Research Foundation, a Rhode Island non-profit established by commercial fishermen to conduct collaborative fisheries research and education projects.
As a research biologist she was involved in a host of projects all centered on commercial fishermen helping gather science managers use to regulate livelihoods.
Fishermen’s contributions are often dismissed as “anecdotal.” Collaborative research got rid of that baggage.
“It allowed fishermen to feel they were contributing and had a voice,” Church said. “When you collaborate you work for a common goal. I have such a passion for working toward common goals.”
While at the foundation she helped develop an app that allowed fishermen to collect data, oversaw the Lobster and Jonah Crab Research Fleet that studied lobsters and Jonah crabs, worked with oceanographers at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on a Shelf Research Fleet where fishermen collected temperature/depth and salinity profiles to better understand changing ocean conditions, and worked with others to publish a paper on how warming waters were changing the size and maturity of lobsters.
Church also earned her master’s degree from UMass Dartmouth’s School for Marine Science and Technology in 2022.
She is proud of the work the foundation does, but she wanted to use science to fuel management changes that benefit the industry.
“As a research biologist I always wanted to advocate more and give fishermen more of a voice in the policy arena,” Church said. That attracted her to the Fishermen’s Alliance, where using fishermen engagement to improve marine policies has been a tenet for 30 years.
“Dedicating a full-time position to this role means focusing on it in a way that allows the organization to lead industry, as we have in the past,” said Eric Hesse, a commercial fishermen and chairman of the board of the Fishermen’s Alliance.
“Aubrey is intelligent and engaging, but also patient enough to weather the idiosyncrasies of fishermen. I am confident she can take the inputs of science and fishermen’s observations and help us create policies that make conservation sense and improve fishermen’s lives.”