6 February 2017
Image of the ULOT experiment: ULOT net in giant water tank

The Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA) is always interested about hearing the latest news in fisheries management from both within Australia and globally.

Last month, United States (US) based fishing technology and fish behaviour research scientist Steve Eayrs dropped by AFMA to share with staff an insightful presentation on his experience working with fisheries management and fishing technology in the USA.

Image of Steve Eayrs holding a fish

Steve Eayrs, fishing technology and fish behaviour research scientist

Since beginning his career more than 30 years ago in Australia’s commercial fishing industry, Steve has worked in the Middle East, South East Asia, and the Australian Maritime College. Steve now works at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI) in Portland, USA where his work centres on technology research and development at the iconic New England Groundfish Fishery – the oldest fishing industry in the US.

As modern technology appears to advance more and more each day; for example, mobile phones, computers, and gaming software, so too has technology in the fishing sector. We thought readers of AFMA News might also be interested about management of the 400-year old groundfish fishery.

Describe a typical day for you at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute?

Most of my time is spent managing multiple research projects, all of which involve working closely with fishers and other researchers, primarily associated with the New England Groundfish Fishery.

Presently my blend of projects includes an Ultra-Low Opening Trawl (ULOT) project, introduction of electronic log books, engagement with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in their bycatch reduction project in Latin American shrimp fisheries, and exploring the readiness of fishers to adapt to climate change.

I am particularly excited by two newly funded projects, one to explore options to avoid cod in lobster traps and the other to introduce off-bottom trawl gear to catch haddock and redfish and avoid cod. As you can see, cod dominates a lot of what I do these days, although through FAO I have maintained engagement in bycatch reduction in shrimp fisheries.

What are the main considerations in managing Gulf of Maine fisheries?

The management of fisheries in the US is guided by the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which encompasses conservation of fishery resources, establishment of fishery management plans to realise optimum yield from all commercial stocks, and protection of essential fish habitats.

Many if not most fisheries now have introduced catch limits (quota) for most commercial stocks, often supported by closed areas, gear restrictions, and in most cases, limited entry.

How do environmental changes impact management of the New England groundfish fishery?

This fishery is managed using a suite of regulatory controls including quota, area closures, limited entry, and gear restriction. A long history of overfishing is now being overturned by these controls, and the quota system is providing a high level of responsiveness to changes in fish abundance.

However, climate change is now having a substantial impact in the Gulf of Maine, with water temperatures increasing faster than just about anywhere else in the world. Subsequently we are witnessing momentous changes, particularly in fish distribution and abundance, and there is an urgent need for greater adaptive capacity and responsiveness in groundfish management to accommodate these changes.

Image of Steve Eayrs working on a fishing net

Steve Eayrs working on a fishing net

How have advancements in fishing technology impacted the scope of your research and capability?

The New England Groundfish Fishery has a strong sense of history and tradition, and therefore change is often a slow process. That said, recent advancements include the use of semi-pelagic otter boards, high performance twines, and electronic monitoring equipment including log books and deck cameras.

I spend a lot of my time measuring the performance of these advancements and describing their impact on fishing operations and the environment. Of course this does not always mean they are readily adopted by fishers, but it provides a foundation upon which they can make strategic decisions that affect their fishing operation.

What are the primary considerations when designing new gear types?

My primary consideration is to find win-win outcomes that benefit both fishers and the marine environment. This means working closely with the fishing industry to design new fishing gear that has less environmental impact and at the same time reduces fishing costs or enhances catch value. If both these outcomes can be achieved, then we are a step closer to successful adoption of this gear by the fishing industry.

How do fishers respond to these technological advancements?

In my experience, fishers often respond with caution or skepticism to new advancements, particularly when the ‘old way’ of doing things has served them so well in the past. That is why a research program should seek win-win outcomes that include a direct and tangible benefit to fishers, and why a dedicated outreach program is so important, including one that takes the time to make fishers familiar with the performance of the new technology.

Image of the ULOT net experiement in the flume tank

Ultra-low opening trawl experiment underway in the flume tank. Image courtesy of Chris Glass

What strategies do you use to encourage the uptake of new fishing technology by industry?

Aside from the usual efforts to report research findings in industry literature, at industry meetings, or during chance encounters with fishers on the dock, I have found it very useful to arrange opportunities for fishers to test the new technology at no cost. For example, three ultra-low opening trawl’s (ULOT) have been built, each a different size, and they are made available for fishers to test on their boat free of charge.

In a project to encourage the use of fuel efficient semi-pelagic otter boards, I collaborated with a financial institute to develop a flexible, low interest finance package so fishers could purchase the boards. Repayments were capped at a value equating to 10 per cent of their annual fuel cost, which was equivalent to measured fuel savings with the new otter boards.  In addition, I had funding to provide fishers a subsidy of several thousand dollars to offset their purchase, and they were provided information about payback periods to estimate when they would recover their investment through fuel saving.

What were the key findings in the ultra-low opening trawl experiment?

The performance of the ULOT was evaluated against a traditional flounder trawl, and the three most important findings were a reduction in the cod catch by almost 50 per cent, no reduction in the catch of flounders, and an 8 per cent reduction in fuel consumption. The vertical opening of this trawl is 50–60 per cent less than a flounder trawl and the headrope is 10 per cent longer than the footrope.

I am really excited by these results because fishers must now regulate their landings of overfished cod – a first in the 400 year history of the fishery. At the conclusion of this study the fisher involved in the trials continued to use this new trawl, which of course, is a sure sign he is satisfied with its performance, and we now have other fishers asking us if they can test the new trawl.

How will these findings impact the future of fishing at the Gulf of Maine fishery?

Many fishers find their cod quota is now so low that it ‘chokes’ their ability to operate throughout the fishing season and land other groundfish such as flounders and haddock. They can lease additional cod quota, although leasing costs are often barely offset by the landing price.

The ULOT has the potential to allow fishers to almost double their available fishing time, all things held equal, before exhausting their quota or having to lease additional quota. At the same time their profitability should increase through fuel saving and avoidance of leasing costs.

The Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI) is a neutral, non-profit organisation that brings together internal expertise in scientific research, education, and community engagement to tackle challenges associated with ocean stewardship and economic growth in the Gulf of Maine. GMRI is based in Portland, Maine. Visit www.gmri.org for more details.

Image of the ULOT experiment: ULOT net in giant water tank

Ultra-low opening trawl experiment underway in the flume tank. Image courtesy of Chris Glass