Shifting research effort away from the famous flagship, the Bigelow

Apr 25, 2023 | Over the Bar, News

over the bar

By John Pappalardo

The Bigelow, launched in 2005, is named after a remarkable man, Henry B. Bigelow, who helped create Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. As a scientist he spent a lot of his life on the water trying to understand fish. As a teacher he spent a lot of his life trying to impart that understanding at Harvard University and in books like “Fishes of the Gulf of Maine.”

So it’s fitting that a vessel built with noble intent, to create a platform for the best science to understand species and stocks, climate change, and all kinds of oceanographic realities, would be named for him.

The Bigelow is the great white boat of the federal research effort in the Northeast. It is 209 feet long and drafts almost 30 feet with the centerboard down. It can handle 20 crew with an additional 19 scientists onboard, and can stay out for 40 days and nights at a time. It can trawl survey nets as deep as 6000 feet. It’s not the only research vessel in the federal fleet, but it’s the flagship.

All that’s impressive indeed, but over the years the Bigelow has had its share of controversies. Concerns have been raised about whether data collection is consistent and accurate, whether the big boat can explore and delve into areas that might show different fish stocks and densities.

Those questions are inevitable whenever you get into research as complicated and variable as the ocean always will be. But there’s no doubt in my mind that the scientists and crew who have worked aboard the Bigelow are well-intentioned, dedicated, often brilliant, with the clear intent to build the best body of scientific evidence possible in order to inform the best public policy possible.

Now it’s time to think a little differently. It’s time to diversify further, move away from too much reliance on one big platform. It’s time to engage the fleet, with multiple vessels and captains, and to some extent supplant the work of the Bigelow.

I say this for three main reasons:

First, relying too much on one vessel is fraught strategy. The Bigelow is scheduled to go into drydock for maintenance and repairs, probably in 2027 — out of the water, no research. That could last 12 to 18 months, which means baseline data the Bigelow should be providing will not be available. If we believe, as we do, that good scientific reporting is crucial for good decision making, we must come up with alternative approaches now. Just last year, 2022, various issues led to the Bigelow completing only 130 days at sea compared to a planned 152, with many of those lost days coming later in the year. That of course reduces the amount of data and evidence collected.

Second, we also know that one crucial issue we must understand is how massive wind farm developments will impact historic fishing grounds. But the Bigelow is too big to maneuver within wind farm grids. It cannot sample effectively. Smaller vessels must be used.

Third, time and again we have seen how engaging savvy, experienced fishing boat captains has improved scientific studies and outcomes. The combination of the best hands-on, seaworthy talent with the best academic rigor is powerful; neither alone get us the information we want. The added advantage of this approach is that the fleet becomes engaged in the outcome, appreciates the credibility of the results, and is more likely to act accordingly.

This more diversified, industry-focused approach is not new. In Alaska, for example, it is much more the norm than here. And even here, there are plenty of projects in which local captains and crews already provide scientists and researchers with crucial support and access, platforms and expertise — the Gulf of Maine Bottom Longline Survey is a fine regional example.

It’s just that more resources need to shift to expand this approach, and it needs to happen soon.

I’m not talking about mothballing the Bigelow. I’m talking about making the necessary commitments, partnering with the fleet, to make sure we have world-class science informing a world-class industry.

John Pappalardo is CEO of the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance



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