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Collaborative research leads to increased catch quotas for New England fisheries

James Sulikowski

, Maine — An increasing trend of cooperation and collaboration among fishermen, scientists and regulators has resulted in policy change that stands to benefit East Coast fisheries from Maine to New Jersey.  

Research by James Sulikowski, Ph.D., associate professor of marine sciences at University of New England, and John Mandelman, Ph.D., research scientist at the New England Aquarium, contributed to a recent emergency action by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to revise an existing policy and increase the amount of skate that fishermen can land this year.

NOAA announced it has increased the amount of skate that fishermen can land this year from 31 million to 48 million pounds, based on new scientific information showing an increase in the overall skate population. The 56-percent quota increase becomes effective November 28th, and remains in effect through the end of the current fishing season, which ends on April 30, 2012.

Skate Populations 

At its June meeting, the New England Fishery Management Council reviewed updated 2008-2010 trawl survey data from the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, which shows significant improvements in the overall skate population.

The New England  Fishery Management Council also reviewed NOAA-funded research on the survival of discarded skates, conducted by Sulikowski and Mandelman, which found that fewer skates die after they are thrown overboard than previously assumed. Based on this research and other factors, the council asked NOAA to implement emergency measures to increase the skate quota.

"We recognize that these are difficult economic times for many fishermen and are working hard to increase fishing opportunity wherever possible,” said Eric Schwaab, assistant NOAA administrator for NOAA’s Fisheries Service. “The quota increase will boost revenues for many fishermen and related fishing businesses, while maintaining our responsibility to important conservation objectives.”

Scientists Working with Fishermen

Sulikowski says, “This research shows how scientists can work with fishermen in a cooperative way to inform management policy. Better science can really help improve conditions for the fishery.”

The research by Sulikowski and Mandelman is funded by a $247,000 grant from NOAA to study the fisheries biology of four species of skates that inhabit the Gulf of Maine.  

Graduate and Undergraduate Student Researchers

UNE marine science graduate student Angela Cicia ‘12 helps run the project.  She works together with 15 UNE undergraduate students and numerous New England Aquarium interns and volunteers, who are gaining first-hand experience in both field work and the management process.

During the 30-month study that began in 2009 and ends in December 2011, Sulikowski and Mandelman have been assessing the immediate condition and short-term discard survivability of four of the species in the Gulf of Maine (winter, smooth, little, and thorny skates), following capture by commercial fishing operations in otter trawl.  Bottom trawls are most commonly used to target groundfish such as cod and flounder, but are also responsible for the majority of skate catch.

Working with Gulf of Maine fishermen Captain Joe Jurek (Gloucester, MA) and Captain Charles “Puggy” Felch (Seabrook, NH), the researchers have been depositing skates in offshore circular net pens for 72-hours after capture, and then quantifying how many survive the process. The species-specific mortality data account for variables such as season, gradients between seawater and air temperature, and deck (air-exposure) time.

The researchers found that by-catch mortality of the skates from bottom-trawl fishing was considerably lower than previously assumed.  The impact of this discovery will benefit skate fishermen up and down the coast.

(News release posted November 16, 2011)