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.