Fishery Data versus Anecdote through the Lens of Sector Management

NMFS Biologist Michael Palmer's Assessment of five years of Sector Management in NE groundfish fishery as presented at the Maine Fishermen's Forum

NMFS research fishery biologist Michael Palmer presents his assessment of five years of Sector Management in NE groundfish fishery at the Maine Fishermen’s Forum Friday

At this year’s Maine Fishermen’s Forum, many old themes are the topic of current conversations. Fisheries managers and scientists point to data that show a fishery resource squarely on the ropes, while many in the fishing industry maintain that there are more fishes in the water than any time in recent memory. Industry often views the current management system as one that forces fishers into a situation where they are “constantly trying not to catch fish” due to quotas imposed by managers based on science the industry views as suspect. The discrepancy between industry and managers–between anecdote and data–is troubling and continues to foment mistrust, frustration and outright anger.

Sector management is one lens through which attendees at this year’s Maine Fishermen’s Forum attempted to view the disparity between what mangers and scientists are reporting and what fishers are saying they see on the water. In New England, the groundfish sector management program went into effect as a new fishery management system in 2010. The sector system moved the fishery away from managing fishing effort by way of controls on fishing days to a quota model. Five years later, those on both sides of the dock are eager to make an assessment of if sector management is working or not.

Does Sector Management Benefit fish and fishing Industry?

A seminar Friday morning titled “Groundfish Sector Management–A Five Year Review” directly asked the question on the minds of many stakeholders: Has sector management benefited our fish, and fishermen?” Hank Soule of Sustainable Harvest Sector moderated the discussion that included both fishermen and a National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) biologist and an economist.

NMFS research fishery biologist Mike Palmer and NMFS economist Chad Demarest gave presentations during the seminar that, while including some bright spots, overall showed downward trends in just about all aspects of the fishery. While the news is not great, NMFS’s maintains sector management is a better management system, in part, because it gives managers and scientists better data on which to effectively manage the fishery. The fishing industry maintains, however, that current fishery management has led to a dramatically decreasing fleet size, which means less fishery data is produced.

As Demarest said several times during the session, it’s hard to say if the pre-2010 “days-at-sea” system of fisheries management would have been better or worse than the sector system for both fishes and the fishing industry. Demarest and others suggest that the downward trends in both biology and economics were established long before sector management began. In other words, it’s very difficult today, just five years after sector management began, to parse out whether the issues in the fishery with stocks and economic viability are more attributable to the underlying issues that pre-date sectors or whether the issues are pinned to the solution that was designed to address those underlying problems, which is sector management itself.

The Hot Button Issue – At-Sea Monitors

One point that was on everyone’s mind is the question over how the data upon which managers make decisions are collected. During his presentation, Palmer looked closely at differences between self-reported data and data reported by observers and concluded that data provided by observers appears more accurate. With the 1 March transfer of at-sea monitoring costs from NMFS to the fishing industry, this is arguably the hot button issue in New England at the moment. This is especially the case following the late February arrest of New Bedford fishing mogul Carlos Rafael on federal conspiracy charges, which has many thinking the fishing industry needs more scrutiny, not less. In early December, however, the New England Fishery Management Council voted to reduce the at-sea monitoring requirement from 24 percent of all trips to around 13 percent in effort to reduce costs to the fishing industry.

Verdict Still Out on Success of Sector Management

The verdict is clearly still out in many people’s minds on whether or not sector management is benefiting fishes and the fishing industry. As one fishermen put it during the seminar, “Science needs to catch up with industry–that’s how the sector system would work for the fishing industry.”

During an open forum with NMFS leadership later in the day, Dr. William Karp of NMFS Northeast Fisheries Science Center talked about the need for NMFS to “engage the broader community.” He said he was as troubled as anyone by the apparent discrepancies between the data and what those in the fishing industry say they see daily on the water.

Portland Fish Exchange’s Bert Jongerden told Karp that too many fishermen say they are spending their time “running away from fish.” Jongerdsen summed up the sentiment of many in the fishing industry saying, “There appears to be a really large disconnect between what the fishermen are seeing on the water and what the scientists are saying are available for allocation.”

“We need to do a better job and have better engagement with industry,”Karp responded, although he did say that at least some of the discrepancy is likely do to scale. “There are always going to be some differences in perception,” he said. “Some of this is just due to scale, where fishermen working at a smaller temporal and spacial scale, they are seeing more fish at that scale. My job is to try to figure out what the total biomass of fish is across a much larger area.”

Karp acknowledged that his response to Jongerdsen was a “standard answer” to the question that he understood was “probably not good enough” for most in the room, but he reiterated Northeast Fisheries Science Center’s  commitment to working more closely with the fishing industry in the future.

While Palmer’s assessment of how things have changed after five years under sector management as “a mixed bag” is representative, overall there is a feeling of optimism amongst many on both sides of the dock who are attending this year’s Maine Fishermen’s Forum. The ability to sustain this optimism even in the face of ongoing challenges, will ultimately determine whether the discrepancy between data and anecdote can be resolved in such a way that truly benefits fishes and the fishing industry.

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About Ret Talbot

Ret Talbot is a freelance writer who covers fisheries at the intersection of science and sustainability. His work has appeared in publications such as National Geographic, Mongabay, Discover Magazine, Ocean Geographic and Coral Magazine. He lives on the coast of Maine with his wife, scientific illustrator Karen Talbot.
This entry was posted in Groundfishing, Maine Fisheries, Massachusetts, Northeast Fisheries and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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