The importance of collaboration in fisheries

Feb 28, 2024 | Plumbing the Depths, News

Kevin Wark, of F/V Dana Christine II, shared his years of work in collaborative research with the group. Courtesy photo.


By Aubrey Ellertson Church

“You cooperate with the police, you don’t collaborate,” is a phrase I’ll always remember.

I heard it at a scientific conference years ago when a speaker compared the difference between cooperative and collaborative research. Collaboration implies shared ownership and interest in a specific outcome, while cooperation is when people work in support of another’s goals.

The adage came to mind at the 2024 Northeast Cooperative Research Summit in Cape May, New Jersey. The one-day event brought together scientists, fishermen, managers, and fishing industry representatives to share approaches and results of new research projects, identify opportunities for expanding collaborations, and facilitate regional coordination while developing new partnerships.

Four breakout sessions featured panels from the scientific and fishing community to discuss: 1) applying data and results from cooperative research to stock assessments; 2) working together to understand impacts of changing climate on ecosystems and fisheries; 3) assessing impacts of offshore wind on fishing operations; 4) finding pathways for cooperative fisheries surveys in the face of offshore wind energy development.

Over the last decade, I have worked closely alongside the fishing industry and learned many lessons. Successful collaborative research is based on partnership between scientists and fishermen. Benefits include incorporating fishermen’s knowledge and expertise into the scientific process, with shared perspectives. A key to successful collaboration is producing research that is relevant, easy to understand by different stakeholders, while building and nurturing relationships.

Historically, there has been a disconnect between scientists and fishermen, and often fishermen feel no matter what they bring to the table, it always is dismissed by the dreaded “A” word, “Anecdotal.” When fishermen go out and collect data themselves, it makes a big difference in how fishermen view the data. When industry-collected data is incorporated into databases and used by scientists for management, fishermen feel a sense of pride and ownership in that data. Fishermen often comment that when they are involved in research, it opens their minds to different ways of thinking and other ways they can connect to scientists.

As I glanced around the room, I saw fishermen discussing management decisions, others discussing recent catch and changes in the environment. Fishermen and researchers spoke to years of collaborative and gear conservation projects to reduce bycatch.

The skillset fishermen possess is something I wish more people got to experience and learn from. I have learned more about fisheries management and New England fisheries working alongside the commercial fishing industry than any textbook could provide. Their experiences, knowledge, and network create an incredibly valuable resource for scientists.

Glen Gawarkiewicz, of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, spoke about “rate of change” and how the region is influenced by oceanographic events and weather systems. This could cause species distributions to shift, creating a “wrench in population dynamics,” as Grace Saba of Rutgers University described it.

During a breakout session about understanding impacts of climate change on ecosystems and fisheries, we heard from industry members who asked, “We are collecting this oceanographic data, but what does it really mean?” Their question highlighted the need to translate science and avoid jargon, so data such as bottom temperature, salinity, oxygen is not just useful to scientists, but understood and applied by fishermen collecting it.

Bill Bright, captain of F/V Retriever, is seeing changes on the water, and explained that the quota he controls to catch herring off New Jersey does not help if there are no herring there. We also heard how a five-year lag in management can be a big deal in the face of climate change.

At another breakout session, we heard about paths forward for surveys in the face of offshore wind development. It was recommended that understanding selectivity of gear and seasonality of fishing is important, as well as finding nontraditional ways to fish. More emphasis on industry-based surveys was also requested. Catherine Foley of Northeast Fisheries Science Center, Ecosystem Surveys Branch, said, “The choices we make now need to be adaptable and dynamic throughout the lifespan of the wind projects,” requiring long-term monitoring.

Anna Mercer, Chief of the Cooperative Research Branch at the science center, closed with a few lessons she learned from the late Jimmy Ruhle Sr.

Ruhle was a 2004 recipient of National Fisherman’s Highliner award, which recognized his dedication to responsible fisheries management and cooperative research. He ran the F/V Darana R, instrumental to the Northeast Area Monitoring and Assessment Program (NEAMAP), a cooperative trawl survey of the Mid-Atlantic and southern New England nearshore waters aimed at filling data gaps.

Here are his lessons:

  1. Respect is earned. Listen carefully, work hard and you will be rewarded with trust.
  2. Always bring facts to the table, not just opinions.
  3. Science is not about proving you are right, but evolving understanding. We can do this better together than apart.
  4. Bring humility to every conversation, and do not be afraid to admit when you’re wrong.

Taking lessons from Jimmy’s book will help find ways to push collaborative research forward, make a valuable contribution, learn, and ask questions to find better understanding. Collaborative research brings great rewards, if we let it.

(Aubrey Ellertson Church is Fisheries Policy Director for the Fishermen’s Alliance)


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