Power to the (Fishing) People

Pilot project democratizes — and hopefully improves — gathering of scientific data by enlisting commercial fishermen in the study of their local fisheries.
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It is no secret that the world's fisheries are in trouble. Separate recent scientific studies found that more than 90 percent of large pelagic fish have been removed from the sea in the past 50 years alone, that more than half of monitored U.S. fish stocks are overfished, and that if fishing practices don't change, all of Earth's fisheries could be exhausted by mid-century.

Given those disturbing findings, it would be reasonable to assume that scientists, fishermen and policy makers are hard at work turning the tide to ensure the long-term sustainability of the world's fisheries. But it hasn't usually worked out that way.

Because scientists typically study fisheries to serve government agencies or conservation groups — and not fishermen — their efforts often put them at odds with those who harvest seafood for a living. As longtime lobster fisherman Chris Miller said in a radio interview in 2007, "I grew up thinking that anything scientists find out will be used against fishermen."

That perspective, nearly unanimous among Miller's fellow fishermen, is at least partially the result of fishermen having been largely excluded from all meaningful deliberative work on fisheries management. They may have been nominally included, but their extensive knowledge of the ocean and the creatures they chase have remained largely untapped. But that is changing in some places, including Southern California's Santa Barbara lobster fishery.

Between 1998 and 2003, concerns were raised about declining stocks of several commercially and recreationally fished species in the Santa Barbara area, spiny lobster among them. But no reliable population numbers exist for one year in the fishery, let alone the several it would take to track its health over time because population studies in the ocean are difficult and expensive, and government agencies generally lack the necessary resources to perform them. What was known is that the fishery supports about 35 local fishermen who harvested $1.6 million worth of lobster during the 2006-07 season, out of a state total of $8 million.

Though the evidence of overfishing was anecdotal, agencies including the California Department of Fish and Game, responded to the concerns by engaging local fishermen, conservationists and community groups to collaborate in creating several "marine protected areas," or MPAs, including no-take reserves where no fishing would be allowed.

Lobster fishermen, whose mistrust of scientists was surpassed perhaps only by their mistrust of government regulators, and who would be impacted most by the new reserves, participated in the process but had reason to be wary: They didn't believe that the fishery was overfished, and there was no data to prove them wrong.

DFG had previously classified the fishery as "data poor," which means that there isn't enough data to accurately access the population. But a "data poor" determination requires the agency to manage the resource in an extremely precautionary manner. Thus, with conservative management regulations having already decreased catch quotas, new reserves were being established that would close even more valuable lobster fishing grounds.

Another key objection of the fishermen concerned the method of obtaining the scarce population statistics that did exist. It usually involved sending scuba divers down in daylight to count the crustaceans on the ocean. But fishermen know lobster as notoriously shy nocturnal animals found at a variety of depths, so they had reason to suspect that the preferred method produced artificially low population estimates. So data was scarce, the existing data was questionable, the resulting management policies were shots in the dark, fishermen were suffering and there was no trust among stakeholders.

Enter Hunter Lenihan, an associate professor of marine ecology at the University of California, Santa Barbara Bren School of Environmental Science and Management. Raised by politically active parents in Berkeley during the 1960s, Lenihan grew up with the sounds of antiwar marches and "power to the people" chants ringing in his ears. The lessons took, and a few decades later, Lenihan, now an associate professor of marine ecology, is working to democratize scientific research to secure better data in the interest of better fisheries management.

His proving ground for the past two years has been CALobster, a pilot study intended to establish a working relationship between scientists and local lobster fishermen as part of a population study to assess the effects of the new MPAs on the fishery.

The project emanates from a perspective that Lenihan describes as being "in contrast to the traditional top-down control of management decisions, in which fishermen have little input in processes that may lead to restrictions on their work. We're trying to design a program that involves all stakeholders to enhance management. We think this will help lead to the sustainability of fishes and fishermen."

Filling the Data Gap
The idea for CALobster originated during a discussion between Lenihan and DFG official John Ugoretz as DFG sought input on the new reserves. Explaining that the agency would soon be studying the lobster fishery to revise the management plan, Ugoretz suggested that the university work with fishermen on two fronts: to design a new management plan that would identify information gaps, and to find ways to gather the required data.

Lenihan was intrigued by the possibility of a project that could provide data that might "prevent the fishery from being crippled by management plans based on a lack of data." When an opportunity arose to receive funding from the University of California's Coastal Environmental Quality Initiative for a pilot study to monitor MPAs, Lenihan and two doctoral students he advises, Matt Kay and Carla Guenther, designed a project and presented it to the fishermen.

Their strategy was to fish inside and outside the reserves and then compare the results to assess the reserves' effects on lobster populations and fishery economics. Their key innovation was to use traps, not divers, to capture animals that would be tagged and released. Kay would monitor the biological effects of the MPAs and Guenther would study their socio-economic impacts on the local lobster fishing community.

Fishermen greeted the idea with initial skepticism, but not long into the study, several fishermen, led by longtime science skeptic Chris Miller, began to collaborate on the project. Since then, other fishermen have joined the effort, and several innovative practices have evolved, such as using GPS to record catch sites.

For purposes of management, a fishery is typically treated as a single large entity, but a great deal of variability occurs across space and time. So fishermen working with CALobster use GPS to precisely record catch sites, along with times and dates of harvest.

In another aspect of the project, Kay tagged and released nearly 18,000 lobsters. The Lenihan lab also designed a simple device for the difficult task of trapping very young lobsters to determine crucial "recruitment" rates — the number of larvae that grow to maturity each year. Additionally, a port monitoring program was set up so that fishermen returning to port could call Kay, who would meet them at the dock to collect their data.

Lenihan's lab is currently developing an electronic logbook to make it easier for fishermen to enter the necessary data without interrupting their work. "Research is expensive in the ocean," said Ugoretz. "If fishermen can collect data while they're fishing, that cost is greatly reduced."

"It's part of developing trust," says Lenihan, "coming up with research tools that collect the right data for us but don't interrupt the fishermen's work."

The historic lack of trust was perhaps the biggest obstacle facing CALobster, so Miller's cooperation was a significant breakthrough. Scientists, for their part, also had to trust that the fisherman would accurately report their catch, which has not always been the case.

As Lenihan explains, fishery management depends on two types of data: "fishery independent" data, which is gathered by management agencies; and "fishery-dependent" data, collected by fishermen. Fishermen claim that agency data doesn't accurately reflect the fishery because agency people don't have fishermen's knowledge. Agencies, on the other hand, have trouble getting enough — and enough reliable — fishery-dependent data from fishermen, who don't want to see further limits placed on their livelihood and so can have good reason to fudge the catch numbers they submit. CALobster's innovative solution to this problem was to create a hybrid system that relied on a rare entity: the fishing scientist.

Joining Ranks
Kay was that scientist, and Miller came up with the idea of teaching him to fish. That required a whole new level of trust, as Miller would be sharing a lifetime of hard-won knowledge and trade secrets with someone he'd have pegged as a foe a year earlier. Looking back, he sees his decision to go forward as the moment of truth.

"Having a guy apprentice under me and learn the fishery was a big deal," Miller adds. "It was the beginning of a complete reversal of my mindset, because I came in as a guy trying to make sure we weren't getting screwed."

As it turned out, Miller coached Kay on how to set up a UCSB boat for lobster fishing, made maps for him, and took him out to fish. "We created a little 'village elders of the fishing community' committee to ride herd on him," Miller says. "Matt became an apprentice fisherman."

"The fishing scientist has been tried before but is taking hold in California," said DFG's Ugoretz. "CALobster is one of just a couple of projects where they're really honing in on using fishermen to collect data during normal operations." He said that both San Diego sea urchin fishermen and California abalone fishermen, whose fishery has been closed for several years, are also working with scientists to assess populations.

Kay, a diver who has spent a lot of time on boats, describes the internship as "an honor and an adventure," although it wasn't all smooth sailing. Some lobster fishermen, unaware that the project had started despite the CALobster team's efforts, demanded to know what a UCSB boat was doing fishing in the reserve. And one day when the fishing wasn't particularly good outside a reserve, a fisherman who had helped teach Kay to trap lobsters approached the scientist's boat.

As Kay recalls, he said, "'Matt, you told me when this started that if there was ever a time I wanted you to leave, I just had to ask. Well, I'm asking.'"

Kay said that it was an anomaly late in the season when the catch was dwindling. "It was only one day," he says. "I left the area and that was it."

Eventually, all the fishermen knew the UCSB boat, and Kay spent the next two years trapping lobsters, gathering data and building trust through his part in a project that began to make sense to fishermen and gave them standing and a stake in the process. With the fieldwork complete, Kay is now synthesizing the data into what will become his doctoral dissertation.
Four years down the road, not every fisherman has the same level of trust for the CALobster scientists as Miller has, but Lenihan sees real progress.

"Fishermen see that if they're not part of the solution, they can be affected by highly precautionary management policies," he explains. "They're out there every day, so they give us the best possible understanding of the resource. When fishermen are included, they take an active role in managing the resource as opposed to resisting being policed by regulations. Involving them in gathering the data results in better data and creates buy-in to the resulting management choices."

Engaging the Fishery
Carla Guenther's work was also instrumental in building trust. Her study has shown that while reserves may in fact reduce profits in the short term, they may rebound as fishermen learn to fish around reserves. But it was the process more than the findings that served to further the relationship with fishermen.

Conducting individual fishery interviews, Guenther was the face of CALobster to the rest of the Channel Islands fleet in Ventura and Oxnard harbors. At Miller's suggestion, she first conducted historical interviews with influential retired lobster fishermen in the area.

"By the time I was ready to interview active fishermen," Guenther recalled, "I had Miller's endorsement, I was versed in fishing-speak, and I had garnered support within the fleet to measure the economic impacts of reserves."

But it was never easy, and "despite these advances," she explained, "each fisherman still ran his own line of defense before agreeing to participate in my study."

Her persistence paid off when fishermen from harbors in Dana Point and San Diego invited her to jump-start similar projects in their region.

Miller sees the project as a watershed. "The fact that Hunter and his students were willing to come to the harbor to do the port monitoring, and conduct genetic surveys and an economic survey of the fishing community has had a very positive effect on our relationship with the university," he says. "Trust has developed, and that came out of being included."

For Lenihan, it was the crucial first step that was critical to future success. "The purpose of the pilot study was to develop a relationship with the fishermen and to learn to trap lobsters," he says. "The more trust and interaction there is between scientists and fishermen, the better our ideas for management reform are and the better information we get to test those ideas. Better ideas and data should lead to better management, which should generate more trust."

Reserve monitoring like that carried out by CALobster is just the initial phase of the collaboration. Kay lists the long-term goals as ensuring that the resource is sustainable, protecting working harbors so that there will always be a fishing industry, and reforming the centralized, top-down management structure to include stakeholders in research and management.

Lenihan adds, "Now we're beginning the larger task of working with other researchers and the fishery to design a fishery-wide population assessment, modeling and management program."

Last October, Lenihan's group presented their findings to fishermen and the public. Kay was still processing the population data, which would serve as a baseline for future studies. The major results were the establishment of a sound methodology and the beginnings of trust. "The fishermen were glad they had worked with us and that we had stood by what we said we'd do," he says.

As they move forward, Lenihan said, they'll do so knowing "we have everything in place to get good data."

"The wave of the future of fisheries research is collaboration among agencies, universities, other scientists and the fisheries," said Ugoretz.

Giving power to the people who fish would seem an idea whose time has come.

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