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Networks of Researchers and Fishermen Working Together to Reduce Bycatch, Maximize Fishing Opportunities, and Advance Real-Time Technology

In the fall of 2010, the NOAA Fisheries Northeast Cooperative Research Program (NCRP) awarded more than $3 million to network groups designed to tackle difficult challenges in New England and Mid-Atlantic fisheries. These network projects provide a cross-discipline platform for fishermen, scientists, gear manufacturers and managers to work together to address their most pressing issues.

Conceived by a commercial fisherman, a new  "Breakbag" codend detaches from a groundfish trawl net when a set volume of fish is caught to reduce large catches. Photo credit: Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries

“By bringing people together with various technical and practical knowledge, we can develop more selective strategies for people to fish so that they can better reach their annual catch quotas and avoid species they don’t want to catch such as non-target fish or protected species,” said Dr. John Hoey, Director, Northeast Cooperative Research Program.

To date, more than 80 individuals from 35 organizations have participated in these network groups, with work still on-going.  Areas of focus include developing more selective fishing gear, gathering information on fish distribution patterns and environmental conditions, facilitating the real-time exchange of information to identify areas where catches of non-target species are highest (bycatch hot spots), and exploring innovative survey methods to enhance stock assessments for selected species. 

GearnetGEARNET project conducts gear-related research and transfers new technology to industry to reduce bycatch, improve efficiency of capture of target species and reduce fuel costs.  Photo credit: Gulf of Maine Research Institute

A Brief Look at Some of the Work Being Done

In the Northeast

The Gear Conservation Engineering and Demonstration Network known as GEARNET is led by the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth School for Marine Science and Technology, Superior Trawl, F/V Guardian, and New Hampshire Sea Grant. Partners have implemented several projects that are focused on improving ways to target haddock stocks while avoiding cod; allow vulnerable flounders to escape from fishing gear, and improve vessel fuel efficiency.  A 2013 round of GEARNET projects will help supply gillnet fishermen with new, LED-equipped pingers to help avoid interactions with harbor porpoise, and explore gear types which may decrease the impact of trawl fishing gear on the seafloor.

The Fishing Area Selectivity Tool (FAST) project is led by the Gulf of Maine Research Institute’s Fisheries Technical Assistance Program and Ocean Data Products with help from industry advisors. The FAST project is developing a versatile online mapping tool to help  fishermen  track encounters with specific species and identify bycatch "hotspots" so they can be avoided. Maps can be generated that combine a variety of information such as historical observations, temperature and current data, and near real-time, self-reported fishery data.  As a pilot test, the tool will be used to track and reduce gillnet interactions with protected harbor porpoise in the Gulf of Maine.  Several groups of fishermen have agreed to share location information when they encounter harbor porpoise, and participating vessels will be notified when fellow fishermen encounter them. By logging into the web-based portal, fishermen can compare their own real-time information with historic interactions, as well as potentially related oceanographic information. Sharing this information in real-time will help fishermen better avoid interactions with these marine mammals.  

The Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Association has completed a project with Duke University and the Georges Bank Fixed-Gear Sector to explore move-on rules to reduce bycatch and damage to target catch from predators such as hagfish, spiny dogfish, and fleas. Collaborators analyzed information collected through NOAA Fisheries’ Northeast Fisheries Observer Program on set-specific catch and discards from 36 gillnet vessels. The analysis was designed to detect patterns of bycatch and/or catch damage in time and space between consecutive strings of gear. Using information about these patterns, for instance, fishermen and scientists investigated  how long it takes a school of dogfish to move out of an area or how far away fishermen have to move to reduce the chances of encountering them. Identifying these patterns could help fishermen avoid high concentrations of such predators as well as vulnerable fish stocks or protected species such as harbor porpoise or sturgeon. 

The REDNET network is focused on developing a sustainable Acadian redfish trawl fishery in the Gulf of Maine.  Researchers from Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, UMass Dartmouth School for Marine Science and Technology, and the Maine Department of Marine Resources, together with industry and management partners, have conducted experimental fishing trips designed to demonstrate that it is possible to fish for redfish without catching large amounts of other species.  With this information, NOAA Fisheries recently approved a new measure to annually exempt sector vessels to catch redfish using nets with codend mesh as small as 4.5".  Additional stages of research through this project are focused on better understanding the selectivity of 4.5-6.5 inch codend mesh on other groundfish species and/or juvenile redfish.

In Southern New England/Mid-Atlantic

The Squid Trawl Network (STN), led by investigators from Cornell University Cooperative Extension, UMass Dartmouth School for Marine Science and Technology, and University of Rhode Island, has developed a collaborative approach to reduce bycatch in the Southern New England/Mid-Atlantic longfin squid trawl fishery. Partners in the STN are working on improvements to fishing gear selectivity to reduce the catch of non-target species including flounder, scup, and butterfish, and to transfer this technology to the fishing industry, in collaboration with the Commercial Fisheries Research Foundation which has established a gear reimbursement fund for drop chain and large mesh belly panel modifications. The network  group is also exploring survey methods which combine traditional survey nets with acoustic equipment to better understand how well certain species such as butterfish are caught (species catchability) in an effort to improve stock assessments for that species.

Another network group focusing on longfin squid is being coordinated by the Garden State Seafood Association and includes scientists from Rutgers University, Cornell, and the University of Delaware. This collaborative effort is developing ecologically informed models to manage butterfish bycatch in the Mid-Atlantic Bight squid fishery and to support improvements in squid assessments. Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS) habitat models developed in conjunction with the Fisheries and the Environment project are being combined with behavioral models of squid fishermen. Diet analysis of longfin squid is also being conducted to better understand the species' role as a predator in the Northeastern U.S. continental shelf ecosystem, and to learn more about the effects of predation by squid on butterfish. 

Squid Network working to reduce bycatch of scup, flounder and butterfish and learn more about squid biology. Photo credit: Cornell Cooperative Extension

Advancing Technology

The longfin squid network groups have also broadened the collaboration between Cornell, Rutgers, and others to complete a novel project which used real-time habitat models to direct the sampling activities of a commercial squid vessel. Using the satellite capabilities of a highly sophisticated robotic ocean glider, data from the model was sent daily to the vessel, which then sampled accordingly to see if the model was accurately predicting species location. Catch data from the vessel was then transmitted back to the laboratory where it was incorporated into the next runs to refine and improve the model. 

The NCRP has also funded the development of a Wireless Temperature-Depth (TD) probe to give fishermen a better tool to access real-time bottom temperature information which can have a strong effect on patterns of fish distribution and abundance. Until recently, the only inexpensive bottom temperature-depth recording tools readily available to fishermen had to be removed from the fishing gear and paired with a data reader to download the data.  This new probe can transmit temperature and depth information wirelessly from the fishing gear as it is hauled to the surface to a computer located onboard.  This advance in technology allows fishermen to view the data on a monitor in the wheelhouse and make correlations between the temperature data they are seeing and the marine species they are catching. 

Efforts are also being made to share this important data with NOAA's Integrated Ocean Observing Systems (IOOS), and the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic Regional Associations of Coastal Ocean Observing Systems. This additional information can help oceanographic modelers develop new models which forecast not only wave heights and current directions, but also ocean temperatures.  Fine-tuning these models and bottom temperature forecasts in particular, can help oceanographers provide useful information back to end users for strategic decisions and selective fishing practices. In addition, verifying and improving the precision of habitat and oceanographic models is critical in understanding how ocean dynamics affect marine species and in making the next steps towards ecosystem modeling and more holistic management of ocean species.

For more information on any of these projects or on the Northeast Cooperative Research Program, visit our website at <> or contact Carolyn Woodhead by e-mail at <> or by phone at (978) 281-9197.