Scientists at Stony Brook University are developing a program that will help protect endangered marine species in northeastern states by predicting areas where they are at risk of accidentally being caught by fishermen. The project, led by Lesley Thorne, Janet Nye and Hyemi Kim from the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, is a result of a $509,573 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), an agency within the U.S. Department of Commerce.
The phenomenon the scientists are fighting is known as bycatch. Bycatch happens when fishermen target one species, but also accidentally capture an endangered species or one with low population numbers. Bycatch is problematic because low population species often have lower legal fishing levels than the higher population species being targeted. When an endangered species or a species with low population numbers is caught as bycatch, it harms both the species and the fishermen, as they become unable to maximize revenue.
“Reducing bycatch is important to ensure that New York’s fish stocks and marine economy remain healthy,” Kevin Frazier, a public information officer from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, said. “Bycatch can occur when the species caught is off-season, in a quantity over the required catch limit, or unmarketable, and unsustainable amounts of bycatch of protected resources can result in fisheries restrictions,” he said, adding that the NOAA is required by law to reduce the impact on protected species.
Nye, a marine ecologist who specializes in fish, said the main focus of the study includes species such as river herring, which is often a bycatch of fishermen targeting Atlantic herring, which is found in the same area. Atlantic mackerel, Atlantic herring, pilot whales and baleen whales are also being studied, to determine what makes areas more prone to bycatch.
“The goal is to be able to predict areas with the highest levels of bycatch on a weekly to monthly time scale and inform fishermen so that they can try to avoid those areas,” Nye said.
Certain environmental conditions such as water surface temperature can signal which areas are being affected. Scientists will use computer programs to analyze this oceanographic data, helping them to identify high risk areas.
“Our approach here is to use these seasonal predictions from climate models to look at what those environmental conditions are going to be in the future,” Thorne, the principal investigator of the project, said.
Without the grant money, the trio would not have had the resources needed to work on the project full time. The majority of the funds will be put toward hiring graduate students to do the modeling work on the computer programs, Nye said.
“I think that incorporating those models into bycatch reduction is going to involve collaboration with management, so this is sort of a first step in,” said Thorne. “We’re developing these models so that we can determine if that approach would be feasible, and then actually doing the next step would involve a lot of collaboration with fishermen and then with management as well.”
Besides helping commercial fishermen, the success of Thorne’s project could mean higher population numbers for endangered species, or species that face the threat of becoming endangered. If bycatch could be reduced, strides would be made toward helping these species recover.