The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries announced Tuesday afternoon that it will begin the planning process to turn over part or all of a key fish population study from its flagship $54 million research vessel to private commercial fishing vessels.

"We are thinking we want to make good on our commitment in our strategic plan for more transparency and building confidence in (fish) survey results," said William Karp, the science and research director for NOAA's Northeast Fisheries Science Center. He said other regions, Alaska and the Northwest, use commercial vessels for this purpose.

The spring and fall bottom survey has been done by NOAA vessels since 1963 and is the longest continuous fish survey in the world. Using a special net, the 208-foot-long Henry B. Bigelow samples fish populations at 400 randomly selected sites from Cape Hatteras to the Canadian border. The relative abundance of the species they catch forms an index that helps scientists estimate fish populations along with biological information and landings data.

Those estimates determine the annual quota fishermen are allowed to land for each species. But fishermen have been complaining for years that the Bigelow, which replaced the Albatross IV in 2011 was not good at catching key species like flounders, halibut, dogfish and others. They say that low population numbers underestimate what they see in the ocean and have harmed the industry.

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