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March / April 2006 Cover

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The Scientist and the Fisherman

Photo Courtesy of Emily Knight

The Scientist and the Fisherman
Traditional Opponents combine expertise to fathom the effects of trawling in the Gulf of Maine

About the Photo:  University of Maine graduate student Emily Knight was uniquely qualified for the collaborative research studying the effects of trawling on benthic habitats. Her passion for marine research was rivaled only by her desire to open new doors for communication. Knight saw the project as both an opportunity to collect important new data and a chance to bridge the gap between local knowledge and laboratory expertise.


A fisherman committed to better management
Whether they drag for cod, trawl for shrimp or haul traps for lobster, the men and women who make their living off the coast of Maine are an uncompromising lot: deliberate, honest and stubborn.


Marine specialists on Capitol Hill
Emily Knight's groundbreaking research and professional interest in working with both fishermen and marine scientists resulted in her being tapped for a new opportunity in Washington, D.C.

Links Related to this Story

The form of communication is quiet but effective, familiar to anyone who has spoken to a New England crowd about taxes, politics or change. As subtle as a raised eyebrow or an unconscious crossing of the arms, it speaks volumes through its uncomfortable silence.

It's the unspoken language of skepticism, and Maine fishermen speak it fluently.

Maine's fishing community has a reputation for doubting science and questioning change, traits that have only been reinforced by the recent flood of rules and regulations aimed at protecting the Gulf of Maine's dwindling groundfish stocks. And while even the most stubborn of sternsmen will admit that something has to change in order to turn things around, when you're dragging 20 tons of groundfish gear beneath 15-foot swells, skepticism and experience beat theories and projections hands down.

Fishermen assume their skeptical point of view because their livelihood and their lives depend on it, and sixth-generation draggerman Cameron McLellan is no exception.

Nearly four years ago, after reading a research paper by University of Maine Marine Science Professor Les Watling, McLellan's natural skepticism kicked into overdrive. McLellan took issue with a statement in which Watling compared dragging the ocean floor for groundfish to clear-cutting a forest.

The lifelong fisherman simply didn't agree with Watling's claim. He needed to find out for himself.

McLellan, who sails out of Portland, worked with Laura Taylor Singer of the nonprofit Gulf of Maine Research Institute, located in the heart of that city's working waterfront, to develop a research proposal comparing the relative health of the ocean floor in protected areas to frequently fished regions in the gulf. The result was a $195,000 grant from Northeast Consortium that brought together McLellan, Watling and UMaine graduate student Emily Knight for a three-year, groundbreaking study in seafloor ecology and scientist-fisherman relations.

Data gathered and analyzed from 200205 as part of Knight's master's thesis research resulted in a paper coauthored by the trio that was presented at national and international conferences. The research informs an ongoing debate about the impact of commercial trawlers on the biodiversity of the seafloor. With any luck, the findings will help steer fisheries management toward a more sustainable future.

Beginning in Spring 2002, Knight conducted research aboard McLellan's 72-foot steel-sterned trawler Adventurer. Using a robotic diver, she collected samples of the ocean floor and underwater video in the Western Gulf of Maine Closure, a federally mandated marine protected area closed to dragging, and in traditional groundfish dragging areas in a portion of the Gulf of Maine known as the Kettle. McLellan's guidance in finding appropriate sampling sites, based on his family's decades of fishing history, was critical to achieving a meaningful outcome for the research.

"Cameron's direct involvement was of tremendous value to the project," says Singer. "He knows the places where people fish, how often they fish there, what kind of gear they use. You just can't get that kind of expertise anywhere but in the fishing industry."

Knight also was uniquely qualified for the project. The oceanography graduate student's passion for marine research was rivaled only by her desire to open new doors for communication. Knight saw the project as an opportunity to collect important new data and a chance to bridge the gap between local knowledge and laboratory expertise.

"Scientists need to listen to local expertise, fishermen who spend their lives at sea and know areas and environments in a way that many marine scientists do not have the opportunity to know," says Knight. "If more fishermen were part of the process, there would be less of an argument (about the findings); they could trust more."

With the help of Watling's extensive expertise in marine invertebrate research, Knight identified scores of organisms known to inhabit the heterogeneous goo that makes up the seafloor. A remote-operated vehicle was used to establish video transects of the study areas, and samples of sediment were taken from locations closed to bottom trawling for two-, four- and six-year periods, as well as from the Kettle. The organisms found in each sample were identified and compared, establishing a list of major players for each bottom type. When the menu of species found in closed areas was compared to those groups found in the places that were frequently fished, a pattern quickly emerged.

"We're looking at all the components of the benthic community, including both animals that live in the sediment and living on top. The effects of trawling are different for each. Animals in the sediment reproduce faster and have shorter life spans. Those animals are able to recover quicker than those living on the surface of the sediments.

"In both regions of the closure, one closed for four years and the other for six, we found a huge amount of structure-makers, like worms in the sediment. It's the surface animals that find it harder to recover between disturbances," Knight says, explaining that sessile animals, such as sponges and corals, were some of the hardest hit by trawling efforts. Groundfish spawn in habitat with structure. Juveniles hide in the sponges and corals.

The success of the first season of research led to additional funding from the National Marine Fisheries Service in 2004, allowing Knight to collect additional data that strengthened the significance of her initial findings. While the results of the study may not have been exactly what McLellan and his fellow fishermen wanted to hear, they were critical to groundfish management efforts in two important ways: They offered the first reliable estimates of recovery times for seafloor habitats disturbed by trawling, and they were achieved through a collaborative effort that promises to satisfy the skeptics both in the lab and on the docks.

Based on gradual increases in complexity and diversity of seafloor communities that have been protected from bottom trawling for two, four and six years, Watling estimates that it would take roughly a decade for the surface-dwelling organisms to reestablish themselves, but cautioned that a full recovery of the habitat would take much longer.

"I am pretty firmly convinced that if the groundfishing industry doesn't soon begin to undertake measures to conserve complex bottom habitat, there will be little chance that fishery will ever recover to levels seen 50 or 100 years ago. Small bottom fish need complex habitat and it is clear that rock hopper gear reduces habitat complexity," says Watling, an internationally recognized expert on ocean trawling who has written extensively on the subject.

The good news is that recently protected habitats are recovering. While anything resembling a "natural" condition would certainly be far in the future, Knight found that significant gains had been made in the short term.

"Scientists were predicting it would take decades for recovery, but didn't have an opportunity to look at it," says Knight. "We're already seeing signs of recovery after a significant amount of time. We're not seeing a huge trajectory change, but we can say it is recovering toward stability."

While McLellan and Watling still don't see eye to eye, their collaborative efforts in Knight's sampling project strengthened their respect for one another. Through involvement in this and other projects, McLellan has developed a greater appreciation for the work involved in scientific research. He sees fisherman-scientist collaborations as critical to a workable management plan.

"When I first received money for doing research work, there was a lot of resentment on the waterfront. Some people thought I was getting a handout, and others were afraid that if we got really bad results, we might end up with emergency closures," says McLellan. "I just wanted to make sure that regulations were being based on facts rather than opinion. Ignorance of what's happening out there is just going to work against us in the long term."

Fishermen and scientists will likely continue to be on opposite sides of the proverbial fence when it comes to management of the fishery, and any reasonable management plan will require no small amount of compromise.

The irony, of course, is that fishermen's hard-boiled skepticism is what makes them so similar to scientists. Commercial fishing is certainly a science, filled with trial and error, variables and controls; science is a kind of fishing, where theories are upheld or denied based on the outcome of the final haul.

Both fishermen and scientists require patience, skill and experience to achieve competence; both require skepticism and drive to succeed.

Knight hopes to use her training to help ensure cooperation at all levels.

"I'd like to bring science into the policy area," she says. "Not only is there a disconnect between science and fishermen, there's a disconnect between science and management, with a lot of miscommunication on both sides.

Academic researchers don't want to get into policy, but somebody needs to interpret research to managers and bring it to the public forum so more of the community can have a voice in what scientists do."

by David Munson
March-April, 2006

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