Elia Herman, Nicholas School graduate student, delivers some insight from her summer with the pound net fishery.

Elia Herman knee deep in fish

I spent this summer up to my knees in fish. Such is the way with pound netting (http://www.dnr.state.md.us/fisheries/commercial/poundnet.html). A pound net is a fixed trap with a long piece of net that runs perpendicular to the shoreline to redirect fish to the trap, called the pound. The gear is fixed. The fishermen come over with a large boat, cinch up the pound net by hand (lugging the net out of the water) and then bail out the fish with a net attached to a winch.

There are a number of different pound nets in the Chesapeake Bay and I had the opportunity to work with one fisherman and his crew on a project with the long-term goal of reducing bycatch. From the perspective of fisheries management the scenario could not be simpler: one fisherman, four nets. At least, this is what this 5’4” female graduate student thought before she ever set foot on a fishing boat.

It didn’t take long to realize that my first, and probably greatest, challenge was not figuring out how to sort fish or modify gear, but winning over a young fisher boss, several salty dogs, and a group of Bulgarian undergraduates just trying to earn a wage for the summer.

The first week our research team squeezed out two days on the water. The second week the fishermen were too busy and we only made it out one day. But finally, at the end of the third week, after I’d sorted through thousands of starbutters and longbutters, blue fish and spade fish, Spanish mackerel and spot, and after I’d heaved nearly 1000 skates and rays overboard (live bycatch they toss back), the fishermen thanked me for my help and wished me a good weekend. I (quietly) declared victory.

Earning their trust was one thing. Getting them to understand the need to change their practices while maintaining their trust was something else altogether. I’m still in the midst of it—part way through an experiment that will hopefully lead to modified gear, a good catch and fewer entanglements. Jury’s still out.

Regardless of the verdict, what this experience truly speaks to is the enormous challenge of fisheries management. The struggle of trying to work with a few fishermen in a micro-fishery in Virginia makes me wonder how large-scale fisheries management can occur in a manner that is anything but heavy-handed and top-down. Fortunately, some sort of compromise appears to exist in the MMPA -mandated Take Reduction Teams (TRTs) (http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/interactions/trt/). TRTs are comprised of fishermen, conservationists, scientists, and state and federal resource managers who all must come to consensus on policies that will protect marine mammals, while hopefully preserving the livelihoods of fishermen. Though far from perfect, they do appear to be an important first step in giving fishermen a chance to control their own fate—to keep fishing and save the whales.

Currently TRTs only exist for marine mammals; however they can also serve as a model for future management efforts of other species commonly subject to human interaction, such as sea turtles and sea birds, as well as efforts to control overfishing and habitat degradation. Perhaps, however slowly, success can come from a lot of cooks in the kitchen (all hopefully cooking sustainably caught fish).


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