BOWDOIN — Proper stock assessments are the key to sound fisheries management here in New England. The current and now primarily survey-based assessments are heavy with uncertainty and always assumed to be overstated. Given the changes in the available stock assessment data created by 20 years of regulations, the uncertainty only seems to be increasing.

The fact that the R/V Bigelow, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s primary fishery research vessel, delayed the survey this year is a significant threat to fishermen: We have been told that there are very few codfish in the Gulf of Maine, but this spring, fishermen have found it impossible to set a net in the water without catching codfish. This does not correlate well with the assessment advice.

Many boats have simply tied up to avoid codfish. The late start taken by the survey cruise has most likely missed significant codfish “data” as the research vessel remained at the dock.

Even with an on-time start, the survey method employed by the R/V Bigelow covers only a tiny sliver of the available fishing bottom and puts the survey gear on the bottom for a very short time during trips made in the spring and fall. The R/V Bigelow has also become famous in the fishing community for its demonstrated inability to catch cod and flatfish alongside commercial vessels catching those species and in areas fishing boats declared off limits to themselves because of the presence of codfish.

The low annual catch limit for codfish is tied directly to the low numbers provided by the most recent stock assessments. The low limit has resulted in small codfish allocations to each commercial fishing boat. Once a boat harvests its cod allocation, it will be prohibited from fishing for the duration of the fishing year even if it has significant allocation of other species.

In the past, boats were able to purchase or lease a portion any remaining cod allocation from other boats to keep going. However, there is little additional cod allocation available this year because of the poor assessment. Fishermen are now in a regulatory trap because the assessment says there are few codfish, yet they are currently very hard to avoid. Similar problems are occurring with at least two flatfish species.

In the 1980s the fishing community stubbornly refused to believe that something needed to be done to curtail overfishing. (Overfishing was real at that time.)

What’s left of the fishing industry has changed operations, and sustainability is now the primary driver. The number of boats actually fishing has dropped from close to 2,000 in the 1980s to about 250 today. The average size of our fleet is in the 50-foot range.

To protect habitat and spawning populations, thousands of square miles of fishing bottom are off limits to fishing gear. Since the implementation of the catch shares fishing mortality management program, the industry has routinely harvested only about 35 percent of the twice-buffered-down catch limits (because of uncertainty), leaving close to 100 million pounds of fish in the water each of the first three years of the program. These are fish that could have been sustainably harvested.

Scientists who study fishery population dynamics seem willing to blame anything but their precious statistical models and compromised data sources for the high degree of uncertainty in their assessment results. In fact, uncertainty is usually ignored unless it can be used to further drive down landings recommendations.

Adherence to the antiquated modeling system has reached a level of stubborn behavior above and beyond anything approaching the refusal of fishermen in the 1980s to believe that fishing mortality was too high. In other words, the population dynamics folk have out-stubborned the fish folk.

It’s time for fishery population dynamics scientists to hold themselves to the same high standards they demand from the fishing industry. Producing accurate and timely stock assessments with a low degree of uncertainty will do that.

There are better ways to accumulate the data necessary to accurately assess fish stocks. Video survey techniques combined with data storage capacity and recognition software offer a way forward that will significantly improve this process.

Video survey methods have already been successfully employed in the scallop fishery. The gear for translating this survey method to groundfish has recently undergone multiple successful sea trials. The tools are available – only the will is lacking.

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