Cooperative Fisheries Research Can Transform Fishermen And Management
A ways back, I was hired to help a tech diver named Kerry Dillon monitor artificial reefs off Martin and St. Lucie counties, along Florida’s Treasure Coast. At the time, I was running inshore and nearshore charters on the Indian River Lagoon, and captaining a 36-foot Venture for a private owner, out of Stuart, Florida. I’d earned my 50-ton license, and though only 18 years old, had operated everything from a kayak to a sportfisher to a tug pushing two 100-foot barges down the Intracoastal Waterway.
Working with Kerry, my primary responsibility was operating the boat. Kerry often dove, alone, to depths up to 300 feet. He couldn’t use a dive flag and get the job done, and it’s impossible to follow a diver’s bubbles when a diver is that deep. We planned the dives and set drifts carefully, and we dived our plan. Because of our careful timing, I’m proud to say that the boat was always within view when he popped up, even after long, deep drift dives with multiple decompression stops. The experience matured me. It made me much more careful about paying attention to details and sticking to plans. It also helped me appreciate the difficulties, risks and regimen of scientific research.
I wasn’t always topside when working with Kerry. I also got to dive quite a bit with Kerry and with scientists. I explored reefs that I’d fished many times, some of which few divers will ever see due to their depths. Witnessing how the various species relate to those structures helped me fish them more effectively, and made me realize that there are more species on those wrecks than we realize.
On those dives, I encountered species that rarely occur in depths accessible to recreational divers. One of my best memories from that experience was swimming with a school of warsaw groupers near a wreck off of the St. Lucie Inlet in Stuart. Very few anglers I know in this area have ever caught a warsaw, much less seen one of these deepwater groupers, which seem to be in a lot of trouble population-wise. I hope that existing deepwater marine protected areas and the special spawning areas proposed for protection in the South Atlantic will help rebuild that population and enhance populations of other reef fish species.
Those experiences also exposed me to the scientific method and the ways that biologists assess species. I have personally collected data for the Martin and St. Lucie County Artificial reef programs. I got to work hand in hand with biologists from the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission conducting benthic growth surveys on mitigation sites in as little as twelve feet of water, and bounce-diving on a 150-foot tug in the mid 200′ range—where we videoed eight warsaw groupers.
Exposure to science at that point in my life was a real blessing. Like many captains, I mistrusted the ways that the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council set seasons and limits. In those days, which were just before and after the 2007 re-authorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation & Management Act, the fishing for many species of reef fish along the Treasure Coast and South Florida was lousy. In terms of black seabass and red snapper, we only caught a few small fish. Mutton snapper fishing was mostly productive only during the spring spawns. Gag groupers were getting hard to find. Even the triggerfish were getting smaller.
“There has to be a problem with the data collection,” I thought, bothered by the fact that despite all the time I spent in and on the water, no officials ever asked what I’d caught. Except for the experts working with Kerry, I never saw biologists out on fishing vessels, research vessels or diving, either.
I was too young to understand that prior to 2007 re-authorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, and the subsequent implementation of science-based annual catch limits, politics were routinely allowed to trump science in fisheries management. Fishery management councils and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) could exploit loopholes that allowed them to set limits above scientific recommendations.
Though Congress chronically underfunds fisheries research, and stock assessments and updates do not happen in the southeast as often as they should, data was being collected and stocks were being assessed. Now that science-based fisheries management is, thankfully, the law of the land, the best way we can improve on our world-class fisheries management system is to collect better information in more timely and inclusive ways. This type of “cooperative research” promises to get better information, in a more timely fashion, with greater inclusion and transparency, possibly at a lower price tag.
I want now more than ever to help with data collection, and to involve other young captains, on and under water. It felt right, diving along side scientists. We’d share observations topside, and their observations were usually close to mine—only keener in some cases, because those folks had spent so much time under water looking at fish. I learned from them, and they learned from me as well, since I had a sense of which reefs would hold more or less of a given species due to seasonality, lunar phase or weather conditions.
Sharing knowledge and experience through cooperative research is something we need much more of. By open-sourcing a wealth of scientific and fishing knowledge, well-designed cooperative research initiatives increase the fishing community’s confidence in science-based fisheries management decisions. That’s because cooperative research is almost synonymous with transparency, an essential element in data collection, data processing and fisheries management.
Increasing support for cooperative research, or “citizen science” as some call it, has a lot of young captains like me excited. The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council is the process of developing its Citizen Science Initiative, through a transparent process. Transparency is also a key element in ensuring regional expertise with data collection.
Even some members of Congress understand the benefits of cooperative research, including the fact that well-designed experiments can get us better and timelier information, cheaper.
Last year, Congressman David Jolly (R-Dunedin, Fl) sponsored the Gulf Red Snapper Data Improvement Act. Here’s a piece of legislation, H.R. 3521, that Congress should pass this year, with provisions that also provide funding for cooperative research in the South Atlantic as well. It dedicates $10 million annually toward third-party data collection on reef fish species, including (but not limited to) red snapper, for federal stock assessments conducted by academics, fishermen and independent scientists. Legislation like Congressman Jolly’s bill could be a game changer that truly benefits the private recreational angler, charter for hire, guide and commercial sector.
I hope that divers will be included in citizen science initiatives, especially on accessible multi-species spawning aggregation sites, where video data, analyzed and applied in statistically valid ways, could provide excellent, fishery-independent information.
Volunteer dive research teams, like those previously facilitated through the Florida Oceanographic Society, could also be quite helpful in surveying reef fish populations. If swimming proper transects, they can provide information that is less biased than surveys that use fishing gear, such as longlines, seines and trawls. For example, benthic longline sampling could introduce a bias toward fish species that are most aggressive and voracious, such as black seabass and red snapper. More of those species might beat other groupers and snappers to the hooks. Meanwhile, cameras give you a sense of population diversity and density on a given piece of bottom.
We need fisheries-independent and fisheries-dependent data. Watermen, including divers and fishermen, want to help collect continuous and detailed data. We want to work with scientists and managers to ensure that perpetual information is collected and logged throughout the year, utilizing user-friendly yet scientifically valid methods to improve our collective understanding of what swims under our seas. We simply need our federal and state elected officials to make the investments needed to enhance the data-collection paradigm with citizen science.