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Counting Fish | Estimating the Gulf of Maine's Fish Population

Counting Fish | Estimating the Gulf of Maine’s Fish Population
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Each spring, the research ship Henry B. Bigelow drags a net along the seafloor in the Gulf of Maine, cataloguing the fish it catches. What it finds will change the life of every fisherman in New England and impact every consumer who loves seafood.

[ May 1, 2013 ]
CAPE COD BAY

My shift ends at midnight. I deliver Ziploc bags of herring heads to the walk-in freezer, power-wash the fish gunk off my foul-weather gear, and turn my work­station over to the night watch, who will work until noon.

I’ve been on duty aboard the Henry B. Bigelow, the fisheries research flagship of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), for a dozen hours, sorting winter flounder from witch flounder, cataloguing the stomach contents of cod and cunner, punching the results into a touchscreen monitor smeared with scales and slime. I should really head straight to my metal bunk to recover, but my mind is still reeling with the effort of learning new things, so instead I climb four flights of stairs to the fly deck for some fresh air.

A briny wind whips across the deck, and I lie flat on my back to escape it, staring at the night sky. Straight overhead, the Big Dipper frames the Bigelow’s radar dome. I watch the familiar constellation race forward across the sky, skid to a halt, then shoot backward to where it started. I watch it do this several times, puzzling over the state of the universe, before the obvious sinks in: It isn’t moving; we are.

At 208 feet long, with a labyrinth of passageways I’m still learning to navigate, the Bigelow can feel quite huge, but all it takes is the sight of the heavens wheeling above you and the slap of the black waters against the hull to make the ship suddenly feel like a rubber ducky on a big ocean, and to bring home the challenge of our mission. We’re attempting a task that sounds like the kind of thing that might have been charged to a Greek hero who was expected to fail: We’re trying to count the fish in the sea.

[ May 2 ]
STELLWAGEN BANK

On the fly deck, I shotgun coffee in the bright morning sunshine. A wall of white fog cloaks the coast. It looks just like a glacier, and it makes me think of the rivers of ice that created this landscape 10,000 years ago, scraping the land like a bulldozer and plowing mountains of sand and rubble off the edge of the continent, to become Cape Cod, Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, Block Island.

Suddenly, off the starboard bow—spouts! The arcs of humpback whales. Then the distinctive V spout of a right whale, one of the most endangered animals on earth. Then pilot whales and dolphins. We’re curling around the tip of Provincetown, passing over Stell­wagen Bank, a remnant of those glaciers. Stellwagen’s fabled fishing grounds extend from the forearm of Cape Cod nearly to Gloucester, staying about 100 feet below the surface. As currents push nutrients from the bottom of the sea up this great underwater sand pile, they trigger tremendous phytoplankton growth, which in turn feeds the rest of the food web.

We’re here to document that food web. The Bigelow is the most sophisticated fishing vessel in the United States. It has to be, because it’s in the eye of the storm of the most complicated, claustrophobic, controversial, and downright crazed fishery in the United States: New England groundfish, which include cod, haddock, pollock, hake, flounder, and other species caught in bottom-trawling nets. It’s NOAA’s job to determine how many of these fish there are and how many of them New England’s fishermen can safely catch. Every spring, a team of scientists from NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Woods Hole sets out on the Bigelow to drag a net along the seafloor for a mile at each of hundreds of randomly selected points and catalogue the fish they find. This has never made the fish geeks at Woods Hole terribly popular in New England, but since February of this year, when they slashed the quota on Gulf of Maine cod by 77 percent, throwing fishermen out of work from New Bedford to Portland, the Bigelow has been about as welcome here as the Black Pearl.

“We have a saying,” Mike Palmer, the chief author of the new cod assessment, tells me as we watch the whales. “If you’re pissing off both sides, you must be doing something right.” By that metric, NOAA is doing one heck of a job. On the same day this past spring, it was sued by the Conservation Law Foundation for setting catch limits too high and by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for setting them too low. Fishermen have lost all faith in NOAA’s numbers. They want to know how the same agency that announced a surging population of cod in its 2008 assessment could have discerned a crashing population just three years later.

As do I. Since it began its surveys in the 1960s, NOAA has welcomed volunteers to ease the load on its scientists. So I volunteered, to see how they do it. How do you accurately estimate fish populations in a body of water as huge as the Gulf of Maine? You can’t exactly roll back the waters and count.

Now I’m starting to get an inkling. Once we clear the whales, the net plays out. Twenty minutes later the bridge calls, “Haulback!” and the seven of us on the day watch pull on foul-weather gear and head for the LED-lit “wet lab,” where we line both sides of a conveyor belt connected to the back deck, orange plastic lobster hampers around us. The catch is dumped onto the conveyor belt, and the great, glinting diversity of the sea comes wriggling past. As the only landlubber in the group, I’m wondering what I’ve gotten myself into. I sort as fast as my hands can move: herring, flounder, mackerel, dogfish, and lots and lots of “monkey dung,” an odiferous deep-sea sponge.

Please Note: This information was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.

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