Cooperative Studies — The Devil Is In The Details

Filed under: Opinion Pieces, Publications 

By James H. Gilford

More and better fisheries data are needed to meet the long term needs of rational fisheries management as well as the current mandates of the Magnuson-Stevens Act; that’s a given. No matter what the source, those data must pass scientific peer review with respect to quality and credibility and they must be available and useable by fisheries managers; that is a given, too!

The devil is in the details of each cooperative venture: Who determines priorities? What is the purpose?

Cooperative studies appropriately planned and implemented provide a viable approach to collecting scientifically sound fisheries data. However, they should not become a substitute for federally funded data collection and research.

Fisheries information needs include data from fishery independent as well as fishery dependent sources. The problem is that funding and other resources provided by Congress for fisheries data collection and analyses have not kept pace with legislative requirements. Nor are the data collection and research priorities of Congress consistent in many instances with those of fisheries managers who are required to comply with the mandates of the Magnuson-Stevens Act.

In that context, cooperative studies involving the fishing industry’s help in collecting fisheries data sound like a good solution to the problem. Unfortunately, the cooperative approach to data collection is not easy to implement. The devil is in the details of each particular cooperative venture: Who determines data collecting priorities? Who is to participate in the study? What is the purpose? Who pays for the study? How, when and where is the study to be done and by whom? Who analyzes the raw data for scientific quality? Who “owns” the raw data? Who decides if the data are acceptable scientifically and who determines when the data are made public? How are the data to be used?

The fishing industry is in a position to help itself and fisheries managers through participation and, under some circumstances, through funding cooperative data collection projects and research. Industry has demonstrated its willingness and capability on a number of occasions to participate productively in cooperative data collection and research studies concerning gear calibration and selectivity and potential impact of fishing practices on marine habitat.
The success of past cooperative ventures involving industry participation has been largely due to the ability to agree upon potentially contentious details in advance. The goals of the studies were well defined, expectations were realistic, and the effort was truly a cooperative endeavor. Those ventures involved an appropriate mix of participants — fishermen, scientists, fishery managers — who had a clear understanding of the purpose of the studies, the process to be followed in collecting data, the purpose of peer review, and the use to be made of the data.

Cooperative ventures incur a cost to all participants and the potential exists for a lot to go wrong if planning and preparation are inadequate, if data from the study are distributed prematurely (prior to peer review), if participants fail to follow procedures, or if resources are not available to peer review and to enter the data into the database in a timely manner. And there can be some undesirable fall out, not unlike the reaction some fishermen have regarding log book reports, should industry members perceive that data they help collect become the basis for restricting landings or traditional fishing practices, or lead to area closures to certain types of fishing gear.

Cooperative studies in which the fishing industry, fisheries scientists and fisheries managers work together to collect data of mutual interest offer important benefits to everyone involved in addition to the compiling of data. Data collected with fishing industry participation is more readily acceptable to fishermen and unlikely to be a source of contention in the management process. The quality of the data collected and its usefulness to fisheries managers will be maximized if both the fisheries scientists who analyze and peer review the data and the fisheries managers who eventually use the data help to plan and carry out cooperative studies. Moreover, the participation of scientists in cooperative studies serves to mute the allegation that studies involving industry participation are analogous to having the fox guard the chickens.

Fishermen understandably are critical of fisheries data that are not consistent with their personal observations. Their participation in cooperative data collection will provide them an opportunity to gain a realistic appreciation of the time and resource constraints involved in collecting, processing and compiling a base of scientifically sound fisheries data. It will also give them an opportunity to provide constructive suggestions for making data more reflective of real time conditions.

The recent increase in interest in cooperative studies is largely due to inadequate federal funding relative to the need for fisheries data. Fisheries management is data intensive and data needs are extremely broad. In the absence of adequate funding by Congress, other sources of funding are being explored by the fishing industry and fisheries managers including the use of quota set asides to fund research and data collection to address specific data needs for particular fisheries. 1

In considering the merits of cooperative studies and alternate sources of funding, the participants need to address a related concern regarding future funding for data collection. If cooperative studies pick up the slack, if the fishing industry steps in to help out, will Congress be tempted in the future to provide even less funding for data collection?

Dr. James H. Gilford is chairman of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council,* the Striped Bass Advisory Panel of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and the Maryland Sport Fishing Advisory Commission. He is retired chief of the environmental effect branch, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and former chairman of Hood College’s Department of Biology.

*The information contained herein is the personal statement and opinion of the author and should not be taken as a statement of position or policy of the Mid-Atlantic Council.

1. A pamphlet entitled “Non-Government Fishery Independent Data Collection Program,” describing the possible use of quota set-asides for funding data collection is available from the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, Room 2115 Federal Building, 300 South New Street, Dover, Delaware, 19904.

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