By Erika Lower, 2013 Science Writing Intern
Working collaboratively, fishermen and scientists have been able to eliminate the accidental catch of sea turtles in shrimp fisheries from French Guiana to Gabon. In 2014, Tony Nalovic and Troy Hartley are hoping to promote similar initiatives throughout the world.
To realize this goal, Nalovic and Hartley are teaming up with the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) to train scientists in the collaborative fisheries research approach for evaluating and introducing new gear that will help reduce accidental catch of unwanted animals. It’s a process that could benefit fishermen, scientists, and fish.
Today, Nalovic is a Virginia Institute of Marine Science student and Virginia Sea Grant/NOAA Collaborative Fisheries Research Fellow. However his work began seven years ago, when he was researching new gear to reduce sea turtle bycatch in the shrimp trawling industry in his home country of French Guiana.
Bycatch, known by the French Guiana fishing industry as “trash,” is non-target species captured during fishing. French Guiana’s 9:1 ratio o
f bycatch to shrimp concerned many researchers, especially because the bycatch included endangered sea turtles that would drown in the shrimp nets.
A solution exists in the form of Turtle Excluder Devices, or TEDs. A TED is a grid of bars installed in the neck of a trawl net. The grid acts as a sieve, allowing small animals like shrimp to pass through the bars and into the net while deflecting larger creatures like turtles. The TTED, Trash and Turtle Excluder Device, a recent refinement of the TED, can keep out other forms of bycatch as well.
It was this improved technology that Nalovic hoped to see adopted in French Guiana, but he knew it wouldn’t be easy.
Changing Gear, Deciding Fate
“There were definitely trust issues,” Nalovic says about the relationship between fishermen and scientists in French Guiana. At the time, the typical fisherman-researcher relationship was very short-term. Scientists would come in for a week or so, do a quick research project called an expertise, and return to France to write a report that dictated regulations in French Guiana, more than 4,000 miles away.
Nalovic recalls a recommendation that the shrimp fishery use a particular grill on nets to reduce bycatch. While industry was concerned that the grill would reduce the catch of the larger shrimp native to French Guiana, a small study indicated that this was not the case. The study included only five tests of the grill, and the results were not considered credible by industry.
“It was all decided by a small piece of work,” Nalovic says.
Distrust between fishermen and researchers isn’t unique to French Guiana. Mistrust can also arise from differences in the way the fishermen and scientists work, says Troy Hartley, Virginia Sea Grant Director and one of Nalovic’s advisors.
“Fishermen don’t fish like scientists: they hunt strategically instead of taking random samples. This means there’s sometimes a discrepancy between what the fishermen see and what agencies report,” Hartley says. Differences between what a fisherman sees versus what a scientist sees can lead to suspicion and undercut credibility, especially when fisheries managers start making regulations based on the science.
“Regulators can impact fishermen’s jobs and communities,” Hartley says. “The stakes are high for fishermen.”
Gaining Trust Through Collaboration
In the case of TEDs, fishermen in French Guiana were skeptical and feared that the device would reduce shrimp catch. In other places where the devices were used, however, this wasn’t the case. Studies by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) suggested that correctly installed TEDS do not significantly reduce shrimp catch.
Nalovic, who was working for the French Guiana Regional Fisheries Committee (CRPMG), attended an annual TED workshop held at NOAA’s Panama City lab in Florida in 2006. After gathering data and first hand reports from shrimp boat at captains and scientists involved with the TED trials, Nalovic was confident that TTED could work for French Guiana, and he returned with a proposal to test the technology in local waters.
“Most elements of marine science can’t talk to you, but fishermen certainly can,” Nalovic says. “It’s important to go in humbly and say, all right, here’s my idea, and now let’s hear yours. Let’s work on this together, okay?”
By working directly with local fishermen, Nalovic with the CRPMG and their partners in the WWF showed that this newly developed gear could reduce sorting time, lower the risk of injury from captured sharks and other animals, improve shrimp quality by preventing them from getting crushed in the trawl, and potentially lead to a reduction in the boats’ fuel consumption, all added benefits for fishermen. On average, TTEDs reduced bycatch by 30%, including 90% of accidentally caught sharks, without reducing catches of shrimp.
Nalovic’s efforts paid off in 2009, when the French Guinean fishermen voted to voluntarily adopt the TTEDs as a standard part of their fishing practice: A victory for scientists, industry, and the ecosystem alike.
Spreading Collaboration and Conservation
Nalovic continues to attend the annual Panama City workshops and also teaches shrimp captains from around the world how to install TEDs in their trawl nets. TEDs and TTEDs are being adopted by fishermen from Mississippi to Gabon.
In spring 2014, he and Hartley will work with the WWF to provide a CFR Training Course to help international researchers and NGOs learn how to work with fishermen to realize similar positive results in their home countries and in a broad variety of fisheries.
“You don’t need to force this technology onto people once they see that they don’t lose productivity and get positive feedback right away,” Nalovic explains. “It gives them a sense of competence and success, that’s the best way to break down barriers and encourage further innovation and collaborations.”