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May 19, 2009 8:01 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press

Trawling for answers to dwindling fish counts

May 19, 2009 8:01 PM

For years, commercial fishermen in the United States have believed that their catch limits have been restricted by faulty data compiled by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

A new inshore fish survey, first implemented in 2006, is beginning to prove that data long used by scientists to set catch limits has been wrong, and many fishermen believe that’s because folks with Ph.D.s in marine science don’t necessarily know how to fish.

Captain Jim Ruhle’s boat, F/V Darana R, was in Montauk last Friday with a full crew of scientists from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, who are documenting numbers of fish that may seem unlikely to people who believe that the oceans are nearly fished out.

The survey, named Northeast Area Monitoring and Assessment Program, was developed to augment NOAA surveys in the shallow waters between 3 and 4 four miles offshore between Cape Cod and Cape Hatteras after it was discovered that a boat that the federal government had built to do the survey—the Bigalow—was designed with too deep a draft to fish in shallow areas.

The government’s mistake, along with the faulty data of another NOAA boat, the Albatross, which fishermen call “Trawlgate,” has been the fishermen’s gain. By this fall, the scientists on board the Darana R will have three years of data that Mr. Ruhle believes will prove that there are more fish in the sea than had previously been believed.

Mr. Ruhle, who sits on the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, was working on designing a net for research surveys for the council’s trawl advisory committee three years ago, when he met Chris Bonzek, a scientist who wanted to learn what NOAA was doing wrong. Mr. Bonzek needed a boat that could house his research crew, and Mr. Ruhle’s boat seemed to meet his specs for a survey funded by NOAA, The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission that would augment flawed studies done by NOAA in the past.

“Nobody had come up with a boat, and I said, if we don’t correct the science, my sons don’t have a future,” said Mr. Ruhle, whose sons are also fishermen. “I want the fishing industry to have confidence in fishing science.”

On Friday, with a crew of local fishermen, reporters and government representatives joining them, Mr. Ruhle took the Darana R into 60 feet of water just north of Montauk to show off the haul from one of his standardized 20-minute trawls that are used in the survey. The crew generally conducts 11 or 12 surveys a day for a three- week period in both the spring and fall. Using an otter trawl with six sensors which make sure it is properly deployed, he manned the helm and remembered back to the day he’d done a count of the number of skates he caught while fishing right next to NOAA’s Albatross, a survey boat with the same rig and sampling instructions as his own boat. He caught 54 times the number of skate that the government boat caught, he said.

“The only way you can explain that is his net was not on the bottom. They always towed too fast,” he said of the government ship. “If that net is not perfectly consistent, I don’t care how they work it, it’s garbage in, garbage out.”

Bonnie Brady, the executive director of the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association, is one fishing advocate who is fascinated by the survey crew’s work, particularly by the surprising findings they’ve had with winter flounder. Ms. Brady’s husband, Dave Aripotch, runs a trawler in Montauk and she has been a fierce advocate against strict new federal groundfish regulations that had been expected to go into effect May 1. She said the new rules would have devastated Montauk’s two dozen remaining fishing boats.

The law had been designed to protect what are believed to be dwindling populations of winter flounder, but since flounder and other groundfish are usually caught using the same equipment, the law would have banned catching those fish as well.

The NMFS has since backpedaled on the plan, putting into place less restrictive interim groundfish rules while waiting for new data.

With the support of Town Board member Brad Loewen, who is also a commercial fisherman, East Hampton Town and the storied fishing town of New Bedford, Massachusetts, were the only two municipalities to lobby loudly against the new fishing regulations this spring.

What was most surprising to Ms. Brady, who was out on the survey boat with the scientists on Friday, was the significant number of winter flounder the boat has been catching.

Scientists on board were slow to make judgements about the number of winter flounder, given the fact that the survey is not yet complete and data has been collected for less than three years.

“We’re seeing a large number of scup, and a large variety of sizes. A lot of summer flounder, winter flounder, black sea bass,” said Mr. Bonzek. “The assessment said the winter flounder’s in trouble, but it’s a little surprising the numbers we’ve seen.”

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Our thanks to your reporter Beth Young for covering the NEAMAP research trawl survey last week in Montauk; we hope the Press continues to monitor the progress of the Darana R data.

Just as a matter of clarification, federal interim rules were put in place on May 1st that put a moratorium on the catching of three groundfish species in Southern New England (SNE), winter flounder, windowpane flounder and ocean pout, while Amendment 16 is in the public hearing process prior to it’s implementation ...more
By licfa (15), Montauk on May 19, 09 9:03 PM
I was a commercial fisherman most of my life as a child up to teen hood then as a young adult I worked with my dad and grandfather most of my life .things have changed allot since I was a kid we were pushed out of the business
because of new regulations and rules and the price of fuel we could no sustain being cost effective to fish any more. back in the early 80's national marine fisheries dedicated all fisherman days at sea for ground fishing and it just happened to be my dad had (HART SURGERY ...more
By TO BAD (24), hampton bay on May 24, 09 6:13 PM