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
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.
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.
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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
It's the unspoken language of skepticism, and Maine fishermen speak it
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
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 2002–05 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
"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
"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
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
"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
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
for more stories from this issue of UMaine Today Magazine.