Written by Jen Finn
On deck: the truth
How many of you can even imagine facing a 15- to 35-year shutdown of your fishery?
The only thing worse would be facing such a shutdown knowing there were fish to catch.
This is precisely where snapper and grouper fishermen, both commercial and recreational, find themselves in the South Atlantic.
Every account I have read, every report I have heard says fishermen were catching more red snapper than they'd caught in a decade or longer when the South Atlantic council implemented the 180-day emergency shutdown that went into effect Jan. 4.
The science says red snapper off South Carolina, Georgia and Florida are in big trouble, but there is broad agreement, from the National Research Council to the back decks of the snapper fleet, that the science, while it might be the best available, is none too good.
So what do you do? Sure, get more data and you'll get better science, but how do you get more data? Even if NOAA had unlimited resources, timely management demands more data points than federal research vessels can practically supply.
The good news is that there are tens of thousands of fishermen from Maine to Hawaii who gather data every day. We just aren't doing much with it.
That's a shame. As Norman Graham of the Marine Institute of Galway, Ireland, says, "The best information we can get is from the fishers themselves."
We can point fingers at fishery managers compelled to regulate based on insufficient data, or we can confront the truth: The data exist but are neglected.
"Every time a fisherman puts his net in the water," Graham says, "he's not only catching fish, he's taking a scientific sample as well."
It is time we put this sample to work, and a growing community of scientists is committed to the effort. "Making the Most of Fisheries Information Underpinning Policy, Management and Science" is the title of a four-day symposium set for Galway beginning Aug. 23.
As editor of a magazine with the reach of National Fisherman I have been asked to serve on the symposium's steering committee, and I am only too happy to do so.
"Over the last decades our collective vision of fishery-dependent data has changed," says Bill Karp of NOAA's Alaska Fisheries Science Center. "There are a lot of different kinds of information that can be obtained about fishing and about the stocks we harvest."
Karp and Graham are among the conveners of the symposium.
"Our vision," Karp says, "is to take a look now in the 21st century at the broader definition of [fishery dependent data] and engage all the interested parties... not just the scientists who use this for assessment, but managers, policy makers, fishers and fishers' organizations."
Graham is particularly emphatic on the role fishermen can play at the Galway symposium and going forward. "The more active fishermen we can get the better," he says. "What we really need are the guys who are going out there every day and doing the job; getting them to sit there in the same room; getting them to share experiences."
That means you, not the guy tied up next to you.
For American fishermen, the timing is right for the agenda at Galway. Far too many people in this country, many of them in fishery management, see the Magnuson Act as nothing more than a mandate to end overfishing. For them, flawed stock assessments are occasions for fervent application of the precautionary principle, nothing worse.
The timing is right from the technological perspective as well. Devices like VMS, video monitoring and electronic logbooks can be positively utilized in the quest for a better understanding of what's happening with marine resources.
That many fishermen see these devices as potential law enforcement and tax-collection tools has not been lost on the Galway organizers. Convener Richard Grainger of the FAO's Fisheries and Aquaculture Department believes it is critical that efforts around fishery-dependent data enjoy the trust and confidence of fishermen.
"There is a strong need to keep these purposes completely separate," he says, "and assure the fisherfolk that these data are purely for research purposes and not for revenue accounting."
We are hovering over an abundance of information that can coalesce into truth. Indeed, says Kjell Nedreaas, a convener from Norway's Institute of Marine Research, there is far more data available than governmental efforts can amass.
Through traditional research cruises, Nedreaas says, "We can get a glimpse of the different stocks... usually once a year, maybe not every year," and generalize or extrapolate results.
"But with the industry around us," he says, "we secure better coverage, and also throughout the year. So there is a lot of information out there that will at least support other scientific information."
The symposium Web site can be found at www.marine.ie/fisherydependentdata, and from there you can find information about travel and accommodations, as well.
The architect Frank Lloyd Wright said, "The truth is more important than the facts."
Maybe. But in the South Atlantic they'll tell you it's hard to get at the truth without the numbers.
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