Senators blast fish count methods

The Daily Astorian


Smith and Wyden seek inquiry into the way fish stocks are counted

Fishers have long quarreled with scientists about the number of fish
in the sea, but both groups agree that the way fish are counted is

Oregon´s U.S. senators have taken a step toward remedying that.

Republican Gordon Smith and Democrat Ron Wyden asked the investigative
arm of Congress to examine the reliability of data used by scientists
and fisheries managers to assess the health of groundfish stocks.

The senators sent a letter to the General Accounting Office Dec. 4,
listing seven data collection and analysis issues they would like the
office to investigate.

Stock assessment data is critical.

“This is vital to people´s livelihoods and to communities,” said Peter
Huhtala, executive director of the Pacific Marine Conservation
Council. “If we´re making some huge mistakes here, we´re putting
people through a whole lot of unnecessary suffering.”

Based on stock assessments that found canary, bocaccio, yelloweye and
darkblotched rockfish to be imperiled, fisheries managers dramatically
reduced harvest of these and other species caught together for 2002
and 2003. “Fishermen are being forced to forgo other harvests in order
to provide the level of protection needed,” Wyden and Smith said in
their letter to the GAO.

Wyden´s spokeswoman, Carol Gutherie, said this morning that the
senator is “concerned that past decisions may have been made on
incomplete data.” She said Wyden sent the request to the GAO because
he wants to ensure “that at a minimum ... the data on which those
decisions are made is accurate.”

Fishers complain that the data used to make these management decisions
is incomplete or just plain inaccurate. And scientists often agree, as
Wyden and Smith note.

“The stock assessments, while peer reviewed, are based on sparse and
sometimes questionable sources of data,” the senators said. “Every
report made by assessment reviewers includes recommendations for
additional research.”

So if the GAO agrees to dig in to this issue, and it´s likely that it
will, what will an investigation turn up?

Currently, swept-area trawl surveys are performed on the Pacific Shelf
once every three years. Two questions the senators asked the GAO to
answer: Are surveys once every three years sufficiently frequent to
track the imperiled species? If so, why are surveys conducted every
year in other fisheries in the United States?

Joe Easley, administrator of the Oregon Trawl Commission, said it´s
not only the relative infrequency of the surveys, but the method that
produces poor data.

“We need a new box,” said Easley, who was sent a copy of the senators´
letter, “something besides swept-area surveys for rockfish. They´re
totally inadequate for rockfish.

“We need at least annual surveys and we need good analysis of the data
as soon as possible. Lots of times there´s a two or three year lag
before it gets used … It´d sure be nice if we could compress that.”

Huhtala said a GAO investigation that finds stock assessment data
> unreliable could give more credibility to fishers and the National
Marine Fisheries Service, when they request more money for stock
assessment programs.

That may be the answer to some of these problems, but there´s another,
more ambiguous element that undermines fishers trust in stock
assessment data.

Easley calls it “an ‘us and them´ atmosphere, as opposed to what used
to be a very cooperative one on this coast.”

He said that fisheries scientists have stopped talking to fishers and
are relying heavily on models and statistical analysis.

“They don´t have the amount of data they need to make those models
work well,” Easley said. Rather than relying heavily on data, Easley
said scientists should get out and listen to what fishers have to say
about fish stocks.

“I´ve noticed that the fishermen are at least two or three years ahead
of the scientists in spotting the trends,” Easley said.

Until the gap between scientists and fishers is narrowed, more money
won´t solve the problem by itself, he said.

“I think you could have all the funding in the world,” Easley said,
“and if you still had ‘us and them,´ you wouldn´t have a very
successful management system.”

Both Easley and Huhtala said the senators´ action showed they have
concern for fishers and fishing communities.

The GAO typically takes six weeks to two months to respond to
inquiries such as the one Smith and Wyden sent.

Some of the questions the senators posed to the GAO, summarized:

• Does the survey methodology used provide an accurate measure of the
abundance of the four imperiled rockfish species and other
commercially and recreationally important species?

• Do the current methodologies for data collection, recording and
analysis provide the necessary degree of confidence to allow fisheries
managers to make reasonable and equitable management decisions? How
could the process be improved?

• If adjustments are necessary, what funding level is needed to do the
surveys correctly?