State fisheries survey underway in Gulf of Maine
SCITUATE — Over the past seven years, Kevin Norton watched the number of commercial groundfish vessels working out of his home port drop precipitously from 17 in 2009, to just four today.
“If not for the (federal fisheries) disaster money, there’d be no one left,” Norton said about fishermen who catch New England’s most familiar species like cod, haddock and flounder.
On July 11, Norton stood at the wooden wheel of Miss Emily, his 55-foot dragger. He was the only groundfisherman leaving from Scituate Harbor that day. He said he’d be tied up at the dock like the other three if he hadn’t been selected by the state to help Division of Marine Fisheries scientists conduct eight months of scientific research.
“All of our lives depend on this (the scientific data used to set fishing quotas),” he said. “That’s why this survey is so important.”
Massachusetts received more than $21 million in federal fisheries disaster aid, most of which was distributed to fishermen. But the state kept some for research projects, including $400,000 for an eight month Industry-Based Survey of random tows throughout the Gulf of Maine, from Cape Cod Bay up to Portland, Maine, focusing on cod, but counting and cataloging the fish and other species they catch.
“Science is the key to getting it right,” said Matthew Beaton, the state secretary of Energy and the Environment. Beaton and state Department of Fish and Game Commissioner George Peterson were on board the Miss Emily July 11 and helped sort the catch.
The state survey is part of Gov. Charlie Baker’s promise to help fishermen answer some of the key questions plaguing fishery management, Beaton said. Fishermen contend they are seeing a lot of cod in the Gulf of Maine, but their observations don’t match NOAA stock assessments that show historically low populations. The disconnect, fishermen say, results from the federal government using a vessel and net that have had trouble catching cod and performing surveys in the wrong places at the wrong time of year.
While it catches and documents all species it encounters, the state survey was designed to evaluate the status of Gulf of Maine cod, said principal investigator and DMF fisheries biologist William Hoffman. Its timing — April to July and October to January — mirrors peak spawning times for this cod stock. Similar surveys were done from 2003 to 2007 and, with the summer work now complete, Hoffman said they have found fewer cod in the places they previously sampled and didn’t find any major aggregations in deep water areas.
“We really need to do this for at least three years before we can draw any solid conclusions,” Hoffman cautioned. “But right now, surveying at the same time, in the same area, (as the previous survey) we’re seeing less fish.”
The trip on July 11 netted just one cod.
Surveys critical for quotas
NOAA’s Northeast Fishery Science Center in Woods Hole has the longest continuous fish survey in the world with more than 53 years of data for the fall cruise and 48 years for the spring trip. Consistency is important and, until recently, the survey has been towing essentially the same net design with the same vessel year after year in random spots in the ocean, counting the numbers of each species caught, while gathering information on the fish as well as on the surrounding water and habitat.
Scientists at the center use the survey to calculate the relative abundance of species from year to year and over time. It serves as a long-term index to compare against other fisheries information and to reveal population trends. It also provides data independent of what fishermen supply through landings.
By combining survey data with biological information from fish samples taken at sea and dockside, landings and other sources, scientists generate an estimate of the population size and age composition using computer modeling that is the basis of fishery regulations intended to rebuild a species or keep a stock healthy.
The state survey will be more intensive than the federal effort, with approximately 400 tows in the Gulf of Maine over eight months compared with NOAA’s two-month research cruise with approximately 800 trawl locations from North Carolina up over the Canadian maritime border.
Accurately determining the quota for each species is critical to a new fishery management system adopted in 2010.
“Cap-and-trade,” is what longtime Scituate groundfisherman Frank Mirarchi calls it. Fisheries scientists use stock assessments to cap how much fish can be caught of each stock without dramatically reducing its overall population, or how many can be caught while rebuilding an overfished stock within a specific time frame. Each fisherman is given a percentage of the quota for each stock according to what they caught in the past. In the case of the 19 species of groundfish, which tend to be found mixed together, running out of quota in one species means a fisherman would have to buy or lease more of that quota from another fisherman to continue fishing.
Recent NOAA stock assessments show Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank cod stocks at historically low levels, resulting in a 62 percent cut this year in quota for Georges Bank cod to 730 metric tons, compared to historical landings of between 11,000 and 62,000 metric tons. Gulf of Maine cod landings also reached 60,000 metric tons in the past. Although that quota did go up slightly this year, it was still low at 473.
Less cod means less quota available for trade. That shortage combined with increased demand set the price for cod quota beyond what many fishermen would pay, Mirarchi said. They are tying up at the dock until they feel they can safely go fishing without encountering cod. Cod isn’t the only bottleneck for New England fishermen since flounder stocks were also cut by between 41 and 63 percent this year.
Many fishermen feel the relatively new NOAA research vessel Henry B. Bigelow is not good at capturing fish. Its size keeps it from surveying large tracts of inshore areas in the Mid-Atlantic that were covered by its predecessor. Also, the net it uses is not good at capturing important groundfish species like flounder, Norton said. Plus, fishermen contend the NOAA survey was done at the wrong time of year for cod to be present in survey areas, contributing to what they feel were artificially low abundance estimates.
“They (NOAA) recognize there are issues,” said state survey project coordinator Nicholas Buchan. NOAA installed a $30,000 data collection system, known as a Fisheries Science Computing System, on the Miss Emily and taught the DMF scientists how to use it, Buchan said. It looks simple enough, but the NOAA system speeds data collection and improves its accuracy. It cut processing time from four months for paper record-keeping to one, said NOAA spokeswoman Teri Frady. NOAA loaned three such systems to support state survey efforts and cooperative science projects involving fishermen, she said.
Changes improve data collection
On July 11, eight miles off Scituate, the winch cables groaned and a cloud of dust and rust exploded off the net reel as it was being hauled up from the ocean floor, nearly 200 feet below. State fisheries biologist Micah Dean explained the goal of the survey isn’t just to count and catalog species. They also want to develop another measure of abundance known as swept area biomass, which determines the density of fish within the area determined by each tow. To do that they had to know the exact width and height of the net as it is towed along the bottom. Each of the twin otter doors, the steel panels that spread the net open underwater, was equipped with a transmitter that sent a signal to a hydroacoustic receiver under the vessel. Calculating the return time for the signal set its position and confirmed the net was at maximum width. Other sensors on the mouth of the net told the crew it was open vertically.
Since the bottom of the net has 16-inch wheels to bounce over any obstacle they might encounter, Dean said they were planning future experiments to deploy a second net under the main net to see if species like cod, which often dive to the bottom to escape, were being passed over by the wheels and avoiding capture. A second experiment, still in the planning phase, will try to estimate how many fish were being herded into the net by the dust cloud created by the otter doors as they bounced along the bottom on cables strung wide on either side of the net. Herding could inflate the calculation of the number of fish within the net area.
With the net suspended over the deck, crewman Paul Fitzgibbon pulled a line, spilling fish and lobsters into fish pens. Crewmen and scientists began the process of sorting by species. Each species was tossed into its own barcoded white pail. Because a fishing vessel is noisy, the NOAA measuring device is equipped with lots of bells and whistles; each programmed sound representing a specific task accomplished or notifying the scientist that something needed to be done.
A loud ring notified Buchan he had correctly scanned a bucket into the database. A recorded “Bud” frog belch taken from a beer commercial told Hoffman he had entered the fish length by placing a magnetized marker on the measuring board. A shotgun blast meant the fish needed extra sampling such as the removal of ear bones to determine age.
All that information used to be recorded by hand, Hoffman said. It was a laborious and slow process prone to inaccuracies. State prisoners were used to enter data from the handwritten sheets into a computer database, another potential source of errors.
On the Miss Emily, the NOAA system transferred the information seamlessly from scales and measuring boards into a database that could be available almost immediately.
The one universal surprise for scientists and crew was that they were catching large amounts of haddock everywhere in the Gulf of Maine. Fisheries scientists have been saying for years that haddock had recovered from historic lows in the 1990s to historic levels of abundance. They set really high quotas hoping that could help ease some of the economic pain, but the fish didn’t materialize, except in far offshore areas where only the larger vessels could go.
Like the Bigelow, the state survey is allowed to use a net with a finer mesh that allows it to catch sub-legal sized fish, and juvenile haddock has so far dominated survey tows.
“I never saw haddock around here,” said Norton, who has been commercially fishing out of Scituate for two decades.
The smaller mesh net used for the survey was like a crystal ball, peering into a future. Scientists and fishermen on the survey hoped that in two to three years, the juvenile haddock their survey documented would mature and give fishermen something to catch and a reason to celebrate.
“What we see here is a place for optimism,” Mirarchi said while filleting boxes of legal-sized haddock for market.
Courtesy of Cape Cod Times