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Mistrust between scientists, fishermen mars key mission

Photographs by Bill Greene

Second of four parts

FALMOUTH -- From the lightly swaying deck of his 98-foot trawler, Matt Stommel points out the scene of the crime, lit now in the deep orange of approaching sunset.

Stommel's boat, the Nobska, is docked on the Woods Hole waterfront here, with an easy view of the government laboratory charged with counting New England's fish. It was from this perch, Stommel recalls, that he watched as workers marked a steel cable from an aging research vessel, the Albatross IV, on a freezing day in the winter of 2000.

What he saw that day filled him with a skipper's disgust.

The cable was one of the pair that secure the Albatross's fish net, yet the workers weren't checking to be sure the length of the cables matched up. Stommel immediately understood the risk: The Albatross could be dragging its net through the water lopsided, catching fewer fish and leading scientists to conclude that the fish need fiercer protection -- even though Stommel, like other fisherman, believes they are all rebounding.

For the next two years, Stommel pleaded with scientists to check the cables and even offered to pay for the test himself. Last fall, the center admitted he was right, throwing into doubt the ship's population counts and drawing fury from New England's fishermen.

"The biggest problem is not the trawl wire," said Stommel, a ruddy, brown-haired man who is one of the region's most successful fishermen. "The biggest problem is that nobody there knew it."

The episode, dubbed "trawlgate" on the docks, still casts a long shadow over New England's imperiled fishery. It was the bleakest turn yet in a critical but failing relationship -- between fishermen and fish scientists -- that must find a new foundation in trust if the fishing industry is to thrive again.

It is the scientists who decide whether fish populations are reviving, findings that ultimately dictate how many fish can be caught. Their work will be the key next month, when severe cutbacks in the groundfish catch are debated by the New England Fishery Management Council, and perhaps voted into effect.

Yet the fishermen trust the scientists almost not at all.

It is more than a culture clash, though it is that. It is a battle over "data" of the sort fishermen know well -- the seeming bounty of fish coming up in their nets -- and what looks to them like flawed guesswork by strangers to the sea, guesswork anointed as science. And scientists, weary after years of criticism, have resisted working with the fishermen, cutting themselves off from the people who, in their way, know the ocean better than anyone.

And so, instead of fusing their expertise, the two groups have maintained an angry standoff that has left the government to decide the fate of the fishery without the best information in hand.

But both sides can agree on this: It has proved a lot harder to count cod than to catch them.

The scientific population estimates, developed in the Woods Hole facility, never claimed to be exact. But for years they were good enough for what they were used for: sounding the alarm as fish stocks obviously dropped.

Predicting the future

Now, however, as some fish species show signs of coming back, the scientists face a far more daunting task: predicting the future.

For each of 19 different stocks of groundfish (cod and flounder and others that feed near the ocean bottom), the scientists must decide whether the population will recover within 10 years -- the definition, under federal law, of an adequately managed fishery.

The predictions they come up with will ultimately determine whether whole fleets of fishing vessels go to sea or remain in port, tied up. Yet the government uses a needlessly slow, technologically backward system for gathering fishery data, throwing a fog of doubt around the scientists' predictions.

The antiquated Albatross IV, placed in service in 1963, is their crucial ocean-going research tool, but it is a cranky break-down prone vessel that has urgently needed replacement for at least a decade. A replacement ship won't be ready until 2006.

And scientists don't know precisely where fishermen are fishing, or how many dead fish fishermen throw overboard, because the government has not hired enough on-board observers. Only 5 percent of the boats now carry such inspectors. In some other American fisheries, inspectors ride on every boat.

Scientists get reports on the number of fish brought to port and they do some of their own test trawls -- hence the "trawlgate" controversy. But to understand what is happening on the water, scientists must rely in large measure on logbooks filled out by the fishermen themselves. These "vessel trip reports" are considered a joke among many fishermen and are notoriously unreliable: One fisherman's entry indicated he was pulling up cod somewhere in rural upstate New York.

And these reports, like most other fishery data, are kept on paper, rather than filed electronically, meaning it takes months before the information is compiled and usable. By the time a forecast is ready, it is already out of date.

The risks of the science being wrong, for scientists and fishermen alike, are tremendous. In the early 1980s, Canadian scientists were predicting flush times ahead for cod fishermen. By the time they discovered errors in their method, a few years later, the cod population was crashing.

In the last 11 years, some 40,000 people have lost their jobs in a region built on fishing. And earlier this year, the Canadian government declared an end to commercial and recreational fishing of cod off Newfoundland.

It is, for fishery scientists, the ultimate cautionary tale.

"It is the fishery parable" says Steven Murawski, the biologist who oversees federal fish population estimates in the northeast. "We think about it all the time."

Murawski, 52, and Stommel, 51, are different in many ways. Murawski spends much of his time working in a cramped office; Stommel is mostly on the open waters. When Murawski describes the fishing problem, he speaks evenly and carefully; Stommel can fly into a rage.

But they share many things. Fascinated by the water since their youth, they both live in Woods Hole, a small village on Cape Cod. Their children attend the same schools. Murawski, the scientist, once worked on a commercial fishing boat. Stommel, the fisherman, is the son of a world-renowned oceanographer.

So, as "trawlgate" has played out in public and as the historic collision between fish counts and fishermen looms, these two men have been talking. In brief chats on Water Street or long conversations on the phone, they talk about currents and cod, ocean adventures of the past and the next round of government regulation.

They talk about fishing. They talk about science. They talk about how things might be different between the two.

Getting to know the cod On Stellwagen Bank, a stretch of shallow ocean that arcs between Cape Cod and Cape Ann, a cod's life unfolded. From above, clumps of sediment and organic material fell like snow. Just below lay a range of boulder reefs, with rocks scattered like huge misshapen marbles. In another area, swaths of pink and greenish-brown anemones rose from the sand like stands of lost cacti.

It is in alien seascapes like this, up to 600 feet below the surface and in temperatures as cold as 37 degrees, that New England's cod make their home.

On land the demand is to know, with certainty, how many fish are left in the waters, and how many there will be. But answering such questions requires getting to know cod. And this ancient animal, with its thick speckled body and glassy eyes, has proved an elusive acquaintance, even for specialists.

The Stellwagen habitat, captured with a robotic underwater camera, provides a glimpse of the sheer enormity of the challenge.

The fish are always on the move; there isn't one cod ecosystem but a nearly infinite number of overlapping ecosystems. And for all of modern man's mastery of land and space, the ocean off our shores remains a vast, untamed place that scientists concede they don't know nearly enough about.

"This is not farming," says Peter Auster, an assistant professor at the University of Connecticut who studies fish habitat. "We are hunting wild animals."

New England became a world fishing capital because of its uncommon underwater geography. Beneath the monotonous waves, several large banks rise above a deep basin cut by glaciers, reaching within 100 feet of the surface. One of the banks, Jeffrey's Ledge -- now a prime fishing spot -- was actually an island or part of the beachy coast during the last ice age. From the North, the cold Labrador current brings a rich stream of nutrients to Georges Bank, where it meets warm waters from the Gulf Stream.

At this intersection, tiny plankton thrive as in few other places on the planet, providing food for larval fish. The submerged banks are lush, filled with an encyclopedic array of sea life, from microscopic copepods, which look like so many tiny spacecraft, to the powerful blue whale. This is where the cod, flounder, and other bottom-hugging fish that humans hunt live.

Scientists know quite a lot about how and why cod thrive in such settings, eating herring and sand eels and anything else that will fit in their mouths for three years until they reach 4 pounds or more -- big enough to be caught in some fishermen's nets. But what scientists don't know is critical: How many young will the fish have? How many will survive to maturity? How rapidly, in short, will the population rebound?

It is much easier to predict how fast human populations will grow. Demographers know, for example, that in the United States, woman, on average, will have two children.

Fish aren't nearly as predictable.

When spawning season comes in late winter, cod gather by the hundreds of thousands. Each female releases a shiny column of millions of eggs into the murky water. If even a small number of the eggs in each column survives into adulthood, the population will blossom; if the average number of survivors drops even slightly, the population crashes.

As the fragile eggs drift downward, virtually everything in the water affects their chances. Temperature shifts can kill them. So can the lack of rocks, coral, or other places to hide on the bottom -- nooks and crannies that are often flattened by trawling gear. Predators, including other cod, eat them.

Because the scientists know little about how to balance these shifting factors, they are left to guess how many fish will be hatched based on how many mature fish they believe there are now. Theirs is a variation on the weatherman's lament: Guessing at tomorrow, based on what happened today. The further into the future they try to forecast, the more likely it is they will get it wrong.

The difference is that few would rely on the prediction of the weather in Boston 10 years from now. But judges and regulators and, above all, fishermen must live by what fish forecasters predict.

And the margin of error is huge. One prediction estimates that there will be 260,000 metric tons of cod on Georges Bank by 2019, if there is a substantial cut in fishing. That would be a huge increase from the 30,000 tons today -- and a promise of a thriving fishery. But the scientists concede those figures could be way off. There could be as much as 360,000 tons or less than 200,000. On such estimates, a way of life hinges.

And there are still other sources of scientific uncertainty. Some researchers believe that decades of heavy fishing may have changed the underwater environment so much -- sea bottoms ravaged by trawling gear, cod stocks so depleted that other species take over their niche -- that cod populations will never be able to recover.

"The sea floor gets dragged over with these nets again and again -- it is like clear-cutting," says Chris Zeman, New England Fisheries Program Counsel for Oceana, an environmental group. "We have serious problems with these fishing boats wrecking the sea bottom and fish habitat."

A fishery's collapse The disaster in Newfoundland is a waking nightmare for those who make their living counting fish, and for those whose livelihood relies on their work.

Scientists believe the cod collapse there was likely caused by a variety of sources, including overfishing. But some now believe they erred, too, by relying too heavily on what fishermen were hauling up -- rather than their own independent surveys.

Fishermen, they think, may have been catching more fish because the cod had huddled together in a last-gasp effort to save themselves. And those huddled masses filled the fishing nets, allowing the cod population to crash while scientists believed everything was fine.

The Newfoundland fishermen's nets went from bulging to empty, almost overnight. If full-scale fishing ever resumes, it won't be for decades, Canadian officials predict. The seafarers who began plying their trade there a century before the Mayflower have shuttered their coastal cottages and moved on.

No one is saying now that New England's fishery is so immediately threatened. But the uncertainty in the scientists' figures can go both ways: It is possible that the fishermen are correct, and the future is brighter than it seems, but it is also possible that disaster could sneak up on New England. We count our groundfish largely as the Newfoundlanders did.

And we know as little about how man-made changes in the underwater environment may affect the fish, and do little with what we do know. Biologists have shown that fish survival is affected by damage from fishing gear or small shifts in water temperature and salinity. But such factors are not built into the government's models.

At the heart of the problem, say many analysts, is a lack of money for scientific research. The National Marine Fishery Service is charged with managing 932 stocks of fish in US waters. Yet for 695 of these, the agency has so little scientific information that scientists do not even know if the species are overfished.

All of the work now done on the oceans -- 70 percent of the planet's surface -- constitutes just a little over 2 percent of federal research funding. And those research efforts are scattered all around the government, with no system for setting research priorities, though there is talk of one.

"If you make a comparison to the Department of Defense, they do everything from basic research to building tanks, but in ocean science there is nothing like that," says Penelope Dalton, a former director of the agency and now vice president of the Consortium for Oceanographic Research and Education, a nonprofit organization based in Washington. "Fishery research is like a black hole in the government."

This gap in basic knowledge is plain to Jason Link, a government scientist at Woods Hole, who is trying to puzzle out what valued species of fish eat and what eats them. It is just a first, baby step toward understanding the dynamics of predator and prey that shape fish populations.

Yet even these preliminary findings are so impenetrably complex that Link jokingly calls a graph he made of the results a "horrendogram."

This is the conundrum: Scientists set out to understand a fish, and realize they have to understand an ocean.

"You wonder why people keep hitting their heads on this problem when we will probably never be able to solve it," says Ione Hunt von Herbing, a marine biologist at the University of Maine. "But what else are we going to do?"

`A terrific distrust' Not far from where the Nobska is docked at Woods Hole, in a brown brick building designed to withstand a hurricane, government workers do the best they can to coax uncooperative witnesses to testify.

On the first floor of Woods Hole's Northeast Fisheries Science Center, a tiny herring lies dead and frozen on a counter, its mouth agape. But behind its glistening eyes are tiny ear bones that pop out with the glinting twist of a scalpel. And on the ear bones are faintly darkened circles, like growth rings on a tree, that indicate how many winters the fish has endured.

In another room, the age of each fish is entered into a computer, along with clues such as its weight and where it was caught. The computer takes all this information and, using sophisticated mathematical techniques, predicts the population's current size, and where it is headed.

The work done here is considered some of the best of its kind in the world, scientists say. These scientists have been carefully tracking fish for decades, giving them a stronger base of knowledge and experience to work from than biologists working in most of the world's other fisheries.

Yet the work is seriously hampered because the scientist don't have a firm fix on one of the biggest variables: what the fishermen are up to. Instead, the scientists take data from twice-yearly trawls, then painstakingly analyze them -- a process that can take a year or more -- to look for signs that fish populations are changing.

These estimates are what the New England Fishery Management Council uses to make its decisions.

"It is like driving your car with ropes attached to the steering wheel while lying in the trunk," said Doug Hopkins, a consultant for the advocacy group Environmental Defense and until recently a council member. "Until we have a system that tells us how many fish we are killing every year, we are not going to be able to manage the fishery."

Except for illegal catches, scientists know what fishermen bring to port, but they must rely on logbooks for information about where the fish was caught, and what other fish were killed and dumped overboard.

Yet nowhere is the evidence more clear of fishermen's suspicion of scientists than in the blue-covered logbooks that are stuffed, water-stained, in nooks of fishermen's pilothouses. Since 1994, fishermen must report how much of each species they catch -- even those they throw overboard -- and give the data to the government.

Fishermen say they dutifully reported where they had been fishing until the fishing council began closing portions of the sea based largely on the what the fishermen were reporting.

"They took all the information we gave them and used it against us," said Paul Cohan, a Gloucester gill-netter. "They closed every place we said we fished. This is a great debate in the industry over what to report. There is terrific distrust."

Sometimes fishermen honestly report how many fish they caught, but lie about where, so that their favorite fishing grounds won't be closed. Some fishermen, taking sarcastic aim at the entire process, deliberately record coordinates that place their catch in forests or in the rolling hills of Vermont.

This atmosphere of suspicion and deceit has created the need for more on-board government observers to monitor the catch. That would be an expensive step -- the government now spends $3.6 million to put observers on just 5 percent of New England groundfish boats. In the Gulf of Alaska, for example, every fishing trip by a large boat has an observer, paid for by the fishermen. But here, fishermen say they are too close to bankruptcy to pay.

Moving the goalposts What little trust there was between fishermen and scientists took another blow in 2002, when scientists came out with new population targets for the region's fishing stocks. Fishermen were stunned -- some of the new targets were twice the old ones -- and would take that much longer to reach. The scientists said that as some fish were starting to recover after decades of overfishing, it was clear that the populations could grow larger than they had suspected -- an explanation that sounded to fishermen a lot like moving goalposts, mid-game.

"We were getting close to where they wanted to be with the fish," says said Portland boat owner Bob Tetrault. "We were almost there, and they suddenly say it wasn't enough."

The mistrust between fishermen and scientists has created a vicious cycle.

If fishermen didn't mistrust the scientists, the scientists would have better logbook information to work with. The scientists would also know more about what exactly fishermen are seeing and sensing out at sea -- all of which could inform a more accurate portrait.

Scientists "are regularly criticized by fishermen for not knowing the data that fishermen refuse to give them," says Andrew Rosenberg, who is the former northeast administrator of the National Marine Fishery Service.

Yet many fishermen believe in their hearts that the science is not a quest for truth, but a weapon used to attack them.

In February of last year, for example, a group of fishermen, including Matt Stommel, went to the Boston offices of the Conservation Law Foundation to try to reach some kind of new understanding.

The foundation had just won a major lawsuit in which a judge agreed with its contention that the government had not done enough to solve the region's overfishing problem. The foundation was hoping to convince fishermen to work with it on a compromise plan to cut back fishing. The fishermen were there to convince thefoundation that harsh new regulations were not needed.

James M. Knott Sr., a longtime lobsterman, told the foundation representatives that he had seen dire predictions for lobster populations just before their number took off. And he told them he has been seeing more cod in his lobster traps -- a sign of bounty -- than he can ever remember.

"I put my first lobster trap in the water in 1942," said Knott. "I have never seen as many cod in my traps as I do now."

Stommel told Douglas I. Foy, then the head of the foundation and now Chief of Commonwealth Development in the Romney administration, that he could prove that the science that formed the basis of the judge's decision was wrong. Stommel recalls Foy telling him: "I don't care if the science is wrong."

Foy denies saying that but says he was frustrated that the fishermen were denying the problem's existence and focusing on the science, instead of trying to join in a cooperative solution to overfishing. He reminded them that the judge's ruling was based on "the best available science."

"I was pretty hot after that meeting," Stommel says. "Yes, this is the best available science, and that is a damn shame."

Forging a relationship In October of last year, the Albatross IV set out from Woods Hole with some unusual guests amongst its crew: fishermen.

The fishermen, Stommel among them, were invited on board to observe as the scientists tested the effects of fishing with the infamous uneven trawl wires. Another fishing boat, the 80-foot Sea Breeze, out of Newport, R.I., also joined the testing mission, fishing alongside the Albatross as it made its trawls. Depending on whom you ask, the trip went well -- or disastrously.

Scientists didn't find much evidence that the lopsided net had caught much less than one properly set. "Trawlgate" seemed overblown. But the fishermen said they saw a host of problems on board, including poor seamanship and unskilled fishing. For one thing, they said, the Albatross' nets seemed prone to tangling, making them less likely to catch and keep the fish.

To the fishermen, the voyage seemed like little more than a superficial attempt to allay concerns about the lopsided trawls.

"This was not about science," Stommel says. "It was about appearances."

Emotions that day were perhaps especially raw because the painful "trawlgate" reminder came as fishermen and scientists were starting to see the need -- indeed, the necessity -- of working together.

"Talking over a coffee and charts in the wheelhouse, I think we can learn a lot from each other," said a chastened Murawski, who Stommel believes is genuinely interested in forging a better relationship with fishermen.

Fishermen and scientists are working together on ideas for improving the government's surveys when New England gets a replacement for the aging Albatross. Currently, the Albatross samples at random locations, but the fishermen are helping to make a list of fixed locations where they see fish congregate.

The government is also expanding cooperative research: One idea is to tag cod, like ornithologists tag birds, to study where they move through their lives.

There are also less formal efforts afoot.

Murawski asked Stommel into the science center for a few days of training in how scientific fish population models work. Stommel recently gave Murawski a copy of "Come Aboard the Draggers," a book about the exploits of early New England fishermen.

Both men know the work they are doing now doesn't just hold meaning for them and the fishing village they call home. Both are working to leave something to the next generation. One of Stommel's children once visited the wharf with her school class to learn about fishing. The group spent the morning with Murawski, the afternoon with Stommel.

"I was amazed at how clued in they were to the fact there are no bad guys and good guys," Murawski says. "This stuff isn't black and white."

Tomorrow: The fishermen vs. the environmentalists

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