Graduate student applying creativity of those who work the sea
Cate O'Keefe, a graduate student in fisheries science, has partnered with New England sea scallop fishermen for a research project aimed at reducing unintended catch of yellowtail flounder.
(Credit: University of Massachusetts SMAST)
This month’s “Voices From the Waterfront” features Cate O’Keefe, a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts School for Marine Science and Technology (SMAST) in New Bedford, Mass., who is working with sea scallop fishermen to find innovative ways to prevent the unintended catch of yellowtail flounder in scallop fishing dredges.
How did you get interested in fisheries science?
I grew up near the coast in Danvers, Mass., and studied biology in college. As an undergrad, I spent time on the West Coast studying salmon. I was very interested in anadromous fish like salmon that live in the ocean and spawn in fresh water streams.
I then did a master’s degree at Boston University Marine Program and wrote my thesis on alewives, another anadromous fish. I worked for a brief time assisting with data quality at the fishery observer program, where I saw a disconnect between the information collected on the boats and the fishing boat operations. This drew me to learn how collecting scientific information from fishermen could be improved and how the relationship between fishermen and scientists could be better.
Cate O'Keefe (left) and fellow graduate student Sally Roman tag yellowtail flounder aboard the fishing vessel T Luis to study the flounder population.
(Credit: University of Massachusetts SMAST)
Tell us about your working relationship with fishermen as a scientist?
In the beginning, as a young woman on the boat, no one knew me — and I was shy. It took me a year and a half of really listening to fishermen, understanding what some of their concerns were and understanding that they have more creativity and innovation on the water than most scientists.
What has made the research successful for the sea scallop research group is incorporating fishermen from the very beginning in all steps of the research and making sure that the results are used — that we don’t go out on their boats and collect data that sit on a shelf.
What spurred your cooperative research project on scallop dredging and yellowtail flounder bycatch, which is the subject of your doctoral dissertation?
The project came from a clearly recognized need. There were huge economic losses to the Atlantic sea scallop industry each year because fishermen were not able to catch their full scallop allotment due to unintentionally catching too many yellowtail flounder in their scallop dredges. Yellowtail is a depleted stock, so the allocation [limit] for catch is low.
How did you solve this problem?
We thought if scallop fishermen focused on areas with a large abundance of scallops and avoided places with yellowtail flounder, they might be able to catch their scallop allotment and avoid an early closure.
Fisheries scientist Cate O'Keefe with a large striped bass that she caught on a late evening tide using eel as bait.
(Credit: Cate O'Keefe)
In 2009, we provided scallop fishermen with a map based on scientific surveys showing where scallops are found and where yellowtail are found. The map was not enough to get fishermen to change where they fished. We realized we had to involve the fishermen more.
So last year, in addition to the map, we asked fishermen to e-mail us every 24 hours to tell us where they were fishing, how many scallop dredge tows they’d done and how many pounds of yellowtail flounder they’d caught in a particular area. While keeping information on each fisherman’s catch confidential, we provided the scallop fishing fleet with daily reports showing “hot spots” where yellowtail was being caught in greater numbers. The result was that the scallop fishing area stayed open until fishermen caught their scallop allotment. The information helped fishermen avoid catching too much yellowtail.
On a final note, we must ask: What’s your favorite fish?
Alewife. They are determined little fish with long migration routes. No one is completely sure how they figure out how to get back to their natal streams [birthplaces]. They’re also incredibly important forage fish for striped bass, which I love fishing for.
Learn more about what it takes to build and maintain sustainable fisheries, and how to make informed decisions about the seafood you eat. Visit NOAA’s FishWatch website.
Posted June 8, 2011