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

In 1996 Congress tasked NOAA with identifying U.S. fish stocks that were overfished and setting catch limits that would let the populations fully rebuild by 2014. “It’s a myth that we’re here to protect the fish,” Palmer points out. “We’re here to maximize the sustainable yield of the fishery.” Palmer is a fit, bearded 35-year-old with swirly-blue eyes resembling the planet as seen from space—eyes that harden when he hears NOAA accused of incompetence, which it has been ever since 2011, when it announced that its 2008 assessment had wildly overestimated the cod population.

Palmer knows better than anyone why the 2008 numbers were off, but nobody wants to listen. Fishermen understandably prefer the 2008 numbers. They probably picture the guy behind the assessments as some stat-head in a Woods Hole cubicle, pumping out the formulas that ruin their lives, but Palmer loves the Gulf of Maine. “As a New England native with Massachusetts and Maine roots, I consider it home,” he says.

As a kid, Palmer was always drawn to the water, fresh or salt. His college interests took the meandering road from whales to aquatic toxicology and finally to fisheries oceanography. He joined NOAA straight out of grad school, drawn by the opportunity to do science with immediate relevance. A lot of Woods Hole staffers dread survey duty, but Palmer signs on for one leg every year. Considering the firestorm his data creates, he wants to see where those numbers are coming from, to identify any possible sources of uncertainty. That, and he loves being at sea.

Until 2011, the low point in NOAA’s industry relations was a 2002 episode known as “Trawlgate,” which took shape when a commercial fisherman standing at the dock in Woods Hole noticed that the wires dragging the net behind the Albatross IV, the Bigelow’s predecessor, were mismatched, meaning that for years the net might have been towed at a cockeyed angle. NOAA immediately embarked on a program of self-flagellation. It invited commercial fishermen aboard the Albatross to critique the net, which they did with gusto. Then it engaged in an exhaustive study of the net and found the difference in catch between the cockeyed position and a perpendicular one to be negligible.

It didn’t matter. With NOAA continuously slashing the number of cod that fishermen were allowed to catch each year, no fisherman was ever going to trust the Albatross again.

[ May 4 ]

We fish in places where no other ship would dare. The bottom of the Gulf is covered with wrecks, lost fishing gear, and boulders; it can put you out of business pretty fast. Every commercial fishing captain keeps his own “hang book” of places to avoid and dreads fishing anywhere new. But we onboard the Bigelow must fish whatever spot the computer hits on the dartboard.

“When I first got here, I couldn’t believe they’d just drop their net anywhere,” Martyn-Fisher, the bosun, tells me. We’re in the Acoustics Lab with Shook, gazing at a wall of monitors. With his scruffy white hair and ruddy cheeks, Martyn-Fisher seems like a seafarer straight from central casting. When the fishing went to hell in 2006, he applied to NOAA, and he still has mixed feelings about becoming what the industry calls a “paycheck fisherman.”

“I miss the adventure of it,” he says. “Being your own man.” And he’s never adjusted to getting the same paycheck no matter what comes up in the nets: “This can get pretty goddamned tedious. Every now and then I go home and tell my wife, ‘That’s it, I have to go back to commercial fishing.’ But then I watch her face fall, and I don’t do it.”

Still, he’s proud of his ship. The Bige­low was NOAA’s $54 million answer to Trawlgate. With the weight of the 40-year-old Albatross hanging around its neck, NOAA lobbied for a ship that could produce unassailable science. It got the Bigelow, whose twin-beam sonar rivals anything in the Navy’s possession. When we reach a new station, we scout the route with our sonar firing. I watch as the Technicolor map of the bottom scrolls into existence. It makes a typical sonar readout look as though it were scrawled in dull crayon. Everything looks clear, so Martyn-Fisher heads to the back deck to let out the net.

The Bigelow’s net uses an auto-tension system so that its wires are constantly self-adjusting to match one another: no more Trawlgates. The net is studded with sensors that monitor everything from depth, speed, and position to wing spread and distance from the bottom, feeding it all back to the monitors. For a tow to count toward the estimation of fish biomass in the Gulf, it has to conform to all required parameters for 16 continuous minutes. Shook watches the monitor for signs of rips, loss of contact with the bottom, collapsed doors (the metal plates that hold the net open), crossed bridles, improper rigging, or any other snafu. This time, after 15 minutes 33 seconds of perfection, the net goes haywire. “No!” Shook shouts at the monitor, softly punching it. “Bad tow.” I wonder aloud whether the Trawlgate crowd has any idea how exacting the science is. “We’ve had articles come out that directly slam the way we do our surveys,” Shook says as he taps buttons to try to see what went wrong, “that directly slam the Bigelow. And it’s frustrating to see that stuff when you know it’s not correct.”

Shook is a creature of the coast, fishing and sailing in his spare time, and I think it must feel strange to be denied the easy camaraderie with so many others who share that lifestyle. Not long ago, he bought a new house next to a Cape Cod Bay lobsterman: “When I moved in, I was wearing a NOAA shirt. He came over and shook my hand and said, ‘Nice to meet you.’ Then he looked down at my shirt and said, ‘Oh, God, don’t tell me you work for them.’”

[ May 5 ]

We’re in the deep Gulf, 100 miles east of Portland, fishing in 400 feet of water. Big, slow, spruce-colored rollers rise up to cuff the Bigelow, and we newbies ricochet down the hallways like billiard balls.

Did I say I dreaded the sorting? Actually, it’s wicked fun. It’s like a video game, your eyes flitting over the catch as it rolls by, hands grabbing whatever species you’re collecting. Then it’s a game of “go fish” as we consolidate our buckets. “White hake. Anybody want white hake?” “Female dogfish? Send me your female dogfish.”

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.

Updated Wednesday, November 20th, 2013

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