Cooperative Studies Are Too Frequently All Talk And No Action

Filed under: Opinion Pieces, Publications 

By Randy Fisher

Just the other day someone asked me if cooperative studies were useful to the interstate management process. The obvious answer is “Yes” but, after a few sips of wine, I’ve sat back and given this question more thought. What really is a cooperative study?

Is it something a professor dreamed up to get funded and it’s considered cooperative because it takes a few people to get it done?

Is it the states and the feds doing something together? Is it something a professor dreamed up to get funded and it’s considered cooperative because it takes a few people to get it done? Would you call all the studies on the Columbia River cooperative?

I have a problem with the term “cooperative” — not with the concept, but with the execution. I’d like a dollar for every time I’ve heard about the need to do cooperative research or data gathering using the fishing fleet. It sounds good but rarely, if ever, happens as intended. The National Marine Fisheries Service needs to walk the talk when it comes to cooperative studies. What tends to happen is that there will be a big meeting on the need for cooperative studies, much talk about the lack of data, expectations are raised, and then nothing happens.

Are there challenges? Yes. Are there opportunities? Yes. What we do know is that we will need more information faster to manage our fisheries in the future. The system, including the courts, will demand it. The question is: What are we going to do about it?

  • First, we need a clear understanding of what information is needed to make management decisions. This sounds easy enough but history and examples like the Columbia River prove it must not be.
  • Second, the states need to step up to the line, institute coordinated data gathering programs, and make them a priority.
  • Third, NMFS needs to think outside the box and figure out ways to make cooperative programs really happen, rather than just talk about them.

In terms of challenges, the future will bring a different role for the states and, especially, the Fish and Game agencies. As we are faced with more listed species, the federal presence in managing fish within state waters will increase. Cooperative programs between the states and federal agencies will become more important. One of the interesting challenges facing these programs will be who really has legal authority over the final use of the data. When you are dealing with research programs this may not be a problem but, interestingly, with cooperative data programs it can be a problem. For example, confidentiality issues can restrict the use of logbook and other data gathered by fishermen in compliance with regulations.

Well I’ve nearly finished my glass of wine and I’ve figured out that we have too few fish and too many fishermen and it’s the fault of cooperative studies. Probably not, but the problem of overcapacity will have to be addressed cooperatively.

We have been fortunate to have congressional interest in fisheries, which has resulted in funding. We may not be as fortunate in the future. We need to be prepared to deal with the big important issues, and the information and management processes that will assist us in addressing those issues. You can’t argue against cooperative studies as we know them — they are nice. But I’m not sure nice will make it in the future. We need to give some serious attention to information that we can get (and will use) from the fleet or we need to quit talking about it. The states have to get into the world of high-tech data collection and monitoring, and sharing of resources. The colleges and universities conducting “cooperative” research and studies need to focus on fisheries management needs. And fisheries managers have to be specific in identifying their needs.

Randy Fisher is executive director of the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission.

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