Dec 29, 2021 | Plumbing the Depths

Captain Eric Hesse and other members of the Fishermen’s Alliance think good science is paramount.

By Doreen Leggett

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Chris King got into the commercial fisheries with his father, has been on his own for more than three decades, and has seen a lot of changes. Now comes warming waters.

“My brother said to me it seems the water is warming and we are not catching flatfish,” King said after his brother came home from a recent trip on their boat, the Donna Marie.

A Provincetown native, with business interests in wholesale and retail, King’s offshore business plan is scalloping and then groundfishing, which the Donna Marie pursues from October to March. So if fish aren’t where they are supposed to be, maybe because of water temperature, it affects his bottom line.

He signed on with the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance to become part of a long-running NOAA initiative that puts temperature gauges on fishing gear, in King’s case the doors of his dragger or his scallop trawl. The gauges give captains information in real time, and feed into a decades-old database.

“When I heard about it, I chimed right in and wanted to be involved,” King said. “We put in 180 days a year and I figured our input would help. We can find out where species will be, or where they won’t be.”

Since the start of the Fishermen’s Alliance 30 years ago, members have used science to drive policy and management, as well as strengthen business plans.  At times the non-profit serves as the platform or organizing structure that connects fishermen with scientists and the research organizations that managers rely on to draw up fisheries regulations. Other times the Fishermen’s Alliance does the research alongside local fishermen, but the pursuit of science has always been paramount to the organization. The project King and fishermen across the Cape are involved in, called eMOLT, (Environmental Monitors On Lobster Traps), is one of many to make sure the Cape’s commercial fisheries stay strong.

“Long-term sustainability means finding the best available science and buying into it, even though we don’t like it sometimes,” said Eric Hesse, a longline and tuna fisherman who was on the board of the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Association in the early years and is now back as board chair of the Fishermen’s Alliance. “We have been consistent on that.”

Hesse said years ago, when Draconian cuts were proposed on harvesting cod stocks, the Hook Association supported the research and the scientists.

“I think that set us apart as a group,” Hesse said.

“We made a lot of enemies,” added Greg Walinski, an original member of the association. He said there was always the question, Should the group tell it like it is or say it’s not that bad? The association opted to stand with the research no matter how ugly.

“I believe in science,” said Walinski. “It goes hand in hand with trying to keep your business going and trying to have sustainable fisheries.”

The non-profit puts a high value on cooperative research, or science done in partnership with fishermen, so, from the beginning, launched efforts to improve the data being fed into the government’s modeling of fish populations and the science used for fisheries management.

“Fishermen, on the water every day, are intimately aware of what is happening in the ocean,” said Chief Operating Officer Melissa “Mel” Sanderson, who spearheaded many science programs since she started as an intern with the Fishermen’s Alliance close to two decades ago. “Their observations and experiences can be easily dismissed by scientists, so the Fishermen’s Alliance cooperative research projects are designed to bring fishermen’s knowledge into the science and management in a way that can’t be ignored.”

The Hook Association’s initial work was with cod and haddock, but further effort has run the gamut from movements and spawning habits of halibut to experimental fishing permits that allow fishermen to target different fisheries on a single trip.

A snapshot of work done in a single year, 2004, the year Sanderson joined the staff, gives a good sense of the long-term commitment:

  • Cod tagging, finding how far and how fast cod fish go. More than 100 hook fishermen members tagged 60,000 cod and were paid $555,000.
  • Cod habitat study, finding out where cod were spawning on Western Georges Bank and Nantucket Shoals, and if there were distinct sub-populations.
  • Juvenile cod mortality, determining the survival rate of young cod caught on hooks and released. More than 1,000 cod were caged at three depths throughout the year, with an average survival rate of 86 percent.
  • Testing baits to see how to attract haddock without catching cod.

John Pappalardo, chief executive officer of the Fishermen’s Alliance, started with the hook association in 1996 and pointed out that many studies involved years of work, creating years of benefit.

When hook fishermen conducted a multiyear study to prove they could target haddock with minimal cod catch, they were allowed access into an otherwise closed area.

“Our efforts created millions of dollars of benefit for dozens of fishermen, which strengthens our coastal communities,” Pappalardo said.

“It was a great success,” agreed Hesse.

The work done with caged cod showed that young cod caught on hooks had a high survival rate, reducing the amount of discards applied to hook fishermen’s annual quota balance.

Those are examples of the Fishermen’s Alliance using science to help create opportunity.

Pappalardo mentioned another example. Using reams of data from fishermen in the large mesh gillnet fishery, the Fishermen’s Alliance was able to win approval for fishermen to begin to land barndoor skates; since updating the science wasn’t a priority for federal regulators, the Fishermen’s Alliance and local fishermen provided data on how barndoor skate could be caught sustainably.

Walinski remembers a similar effort that helped many fishermen keep their businesses going – catching dogfish.

Since cod were heavily protected, hook fishermen had to show codfish weren’t coming up as they targeted dogfish. Walinski remembers he and others took observers 90 days in a row to prove that they were only catching dogs, not cod.

“They looked at the data collected and said, ‘You guys are right,’” said Walinski. “That’s still in place today.”

The Fishermen’s Alliance often tries to take the long view; Ecosystem Based Fisheries Management is one example. Pappalardo, in his role on the New England Fishery Management Council, has pushed for managers to take a holistic approach, instead of managing by species. He chairs an EBFM committee which works to bring climate science and species interactions into decision-making. For instance, the presence of seals and the presence of dogfish have a direct correlation to the number of cod.

While EBFM looks at how a variety of factors influence fish populations, the electronic monitoring program focuses on just one: commercial fishermen.

The Fishermen’s Alliance began piloting electronic monitoring, EM, in 2005, to get more definitive numbers on how many fish were being caught and how many were being thrown over as “discards” because of increasingly stringent catch limits.

Members of the Fishermen’s Alliance, and others, had concerns that some fishermen weren’t accurately portraying how many fish they were discarding, and even if discards were being reported correctly, scientists weren’t using the catch information from fishermen’s logs.

The federal government had a long-term program that put human observers on boats to verify information coming in on fishermen’s logs, but observer coverage monitored a mere fraction of the fleet.

EM, which puts cameras on boats, frees up room on small boats by eliminating an extra person, and provides reliable discard information so scientists get more complete and accurate information about fish stocks.

The effort has taken millions of hours of work and the Fishermen’s Alliance, partners, and fishing members have been on the front lines for more than a decade to create a regional EM program with NOAA Fisheries.

As work on EM continues, there is a battle to get 100-percent observer or camera coverage on all groundfish boats. After close to a decade, full coverage has now been authorized for the coming fishing season.

Meanwhile, cod landings are set to be slashed for Georges Bank and stay at low levels for the Gulf of Maine.

There are many industry groups fighting the science, fighting the cuts. The Fishermen’s Alliance is not one of them, said Hesse.

He thinks EM will help improve the traditional cod fishery’s recovery because scientists will finally have a complete picture of catch and discards with 100 percent monitoring.

“I personally think there is cod ahead for us,” said Hesse.  “We’ll see what happens.”


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