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Transcript: Listening for Cod in the Gulf of Maine

Announcer: Welcome to On the Line, a NOAA Fisheries Podcast.

Frank Mirarchi: I guess I’m a semi-retired fisherman, not willingly.

Rich Press: That’s Frank Mirarchi, a fisherman from Scituate, Massachusetts and he’s talking about Atlantic cod, the fish that famously supported generations of New England fishermen. Today, cod stocks are in bad shape and regulators have significantly cut catch limits to give the stocks a chance to recover.

Frank Mirarchi: The most recent couple of years I’ve not fished a lot because I can’t cost effectively go fishing anymore because we are so restricted on quota that it simply doesn’t generate enough money to justify the effort.

Rich Press: Scientists and fishermen don’t always see eye to eye when it comes to cod, but long term, they both want the same thing, and that’s a healthy and productive fishery including both the fish and the communities that depend on them. To help make that happen, scientists and fishermen are working together to protect spawning cod.

When cod spawn, which is to say when they get together to reproduce, they pile up into dense formations that used to be targets for fishermen. Today, many spawning areas are closed to fishing and the idea behind this research project is to make those closures more precise. The idea for this research came from fishermen themselves.

Frank Mirarchi: We felt we could carve out ways that we could continue to fish, that cod fish could be continued to be protected and that we could continue to run our other fisheries for these other species and concomitantly we’re protecting the cod and keep our little community fisheries alive.

Mike Palmer: Well, they formed these dense aggregations of both males and females, and they’ll remain there for a period of time while the site is, you know, actively spawning—

Rich Press: That’s Mike Palmer, a NOAA fisheries scientist who works on the stock assessment for Gulf of Maine Cod.

Mike Palmer: —and if you run a net through that spawning aggregation they’ll scatter and indications are from the work that’s been done is that they won’t return. So you may disrupt it permanently for that year and you’ll compromise the success of that spawning event.

Rich Press: There are many different spawning populations of cod and each one goes back to the same site where it came from kind, of like salmon returning to their natal streams to spawn. But when it comes to protecting those sites, there’s just one problem.

Sofie van Parisj: Until recently we had very little idea of where they are.

Rich Press: That’s Sofie van Parisj, a NOAA scientist who uses sound to study animals in the ocean. For instance, van Parisj’s group uses underwater microphones to track the migrations of humpback whales. Well cod don’t sing like humpback whales, but male cod do make a bit of noise when they’re spawning.

Sofie van Parisj: They produce this very quiet grunt, which is quite frustrating. It doesn’t travel very far.

Rich Press: Cod make their grunting sound by contracting their swim bladders and van Parisj and other scientists have deployed underwater microphones on the sea floor to listen for them. Those devices sit there recording sound for months then scientists retrieve them and download their recordings. Scientists are also sending out these bright yellow torpedo-shaped underwater-vehicles.

Sofie van Parisj: An underwater robot and it can just keep going for several weeks and every time it comes up it sends back information through a satellite.

Rich Press: Still, the cod don’t make a ton of noise so they’re hard to find.

Sofie van Parisj: I wonder whether when there were, you know, there was this huge population, whether you couldn’t hear a much louder aggregation of, you know, cod grunts happening everywhere throughout this area. Right now really, it’s like trying to find this needle in a haystack.

Rich Press: So how did scientists know where to begin their research? They relied on the people who know better than anyone else where to find fish.

Frank Mirarchi: We were involved in structuring the design of the experiment where we would set up the grid of the acoustic receivers and also from our knowledge of fishing where we thought the cod fish spawning was most likely to take place so they could kind of scope out an area where they’d have the best results for the minimum amount of sea time.

Rich Press: Fisherman got this research project started a few years ago when they approached the environmental group The Nature Conservancy with the idea of protecting spawning cod. Today the research partners also include NOAA, the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, The School of Marine Science and Technology at UMASS Dartmouth and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Frank Mirarchi: So we decided to go ahead with this project. It was a lot of risk involved in it, you know, because here we are giving up our trade secrets to the regulatory agency that had pretty much decided it wanted to—I won’t say close us down, but certainly really minimize the amount of fishing that we did.  But at the same time we wanted to protect the fish and see that future generations of fisherman, you know, our families, our progeny, would have the same opportunities that we had.

Rich Press: To protect spawning cod in a precise and targeted way we need good scientific information about where and when they spawn and for that we need scientists and fisherman working together. Only fisherman can provide the detailed information on fish behavior that comes from a lifetime on the water. And only scientists can provide the technology and analytical tools to turn that knowledge into verifiable, measurable results.

Bill Karp: It seems that to me to be successful as a fisherman, you really have to know what’s going on in the marine ecosystem in the area that you fish.

Rich Press: Bill Karp is the science and research director for NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center.

Bill Karp: And that over a career of years and decades, you learn an awful lot about the dynamics of fish populations and how patterns of distribution change in space and time, and you draw on that every day. So that knowledge is essential if you’re going to be successful as a fisherman and that knowledge is extremely difficult for our scientists to obtain. So the opportunity to work with fishermen and to learn from them is very, very advantageous.

Frank Mirarchi: I believe that we need to work more closely not less closely, but it’s really easy to understand how fishermen can get as angry as they are and stay angry and be very reluctant to try to find commonality because they just see the National Marine Fisheries Service as the enemy destroying everything.

And in the short term perspective it’s true, you know, but in the longer term, if we continue to hammer away on these cod fish and grow them down to negligible abundance again we’d still be in trouble. So maybe we can find the way through this so we can have fish and have opportunities to fish and have some stability so the people can build their lives around a fishery again, and we can go back to having another 300 years of Scituate as a fishing port.

Rich Press: I think I’ll let that be the last word on the subject at least as far as this podcast is concerned. For more information about this research, check out our podcast website. That’s www.fisheries.NOAA.gov/podcasts. 

Thanks for listening. Tune in again next time for more stories about ocean life and ocean science. I’m Rich Press and this is On the Line.


[Music playing]

You have been listening to the NOAA Fisheries’ Podcast, "On the Line". Join us next time for a firsthand look at the people and the science behind managing our nation’s fisheries. For more information, visit NOAA Fisheries at www.fisheries.noaa.gov.

"On the Line" is a production of the NOAA Fisheries Office of Communications.
 

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