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Future of Fisheries: North Carolina Sea Grant Informs State Management Plans

Written by Janna Sasser, North Carolina Sea Grant

Gauging the overall health of a state’s fishery resources takes perseverance — and innovation.

For more than a decade, North Carolina Sea Grant has worked directly with the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries to provide a fellowship that helps to identify management strategies for important fisheries.

“It’s a great way to ensure we’re fully utilizing existing datasets — and fellows have the opportunity to see their work directly impact resource-management questions,” explains Michelle Duval, who leads the state’s interactions with fishery management councils.

North Carolina Sea Grant Executive Director Susan White agrees. “This program helps develop future leaders by giving scientists early-on, real-world experience considering complex issues,” she notes. “In turn, they bring new tools for fisheries management.”

Stock assessments are critical to development of management plans aiming to ensure long-term viability of important species. “Fisheries datasets are large and complex. It takes time to be able to drill down and address questions relevant to resource management,” notes Jeffrey Buckel, a fisheries biologist at North Carolina State University’s Center for Marine Sciences and Technology, who is the academic mentor for the fellows.

Nathan Bacheler, the first fellow, helped adapt the state’s fishery quota for striped mullet, a widely used bait. His methods to analyze survival rate estimates — derived from large-scale tagging datasets of monthly movement and mortality rates — continue to be a core part of that management plan for the species, Duval notes.

In 2016, Bacheler, now a researcher at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Beaufort, North Carolina, received a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers.

Each year, fishery managers identify specific needs, and fellows bring related skills. “For some, it’s having the latest and greatest in data visualization, or technical stock assessment approaches to analyze fish population dynamics,” Buckel adds.

Others also have developed new analytical approaches to traditional management goals. For example, Jody Callihan developed a geographic information system, or GIS, template which enabled fishery managers to examine long-term tagging data for the Albemarle Sound-Roanoke River population of striped bass.

His findings contributed to the state’s stock assessment to account for movement outside of the previously assumed stock boundary. The work also demonstrated the potential contribution of the Albemarle Sound striped bass stock to the Atlantic Ocean migratory stock, Duval adds.

Data visualization and spatial mapping techniques also have contributed to the designation of strategic habitat areas, or SHAs, that represent unique habitats on North Carolina’s coast. SHAs are an integral part of the N.C. Coastal Habitat Protection Plan.

Timothy Ellis examined and mapped distribution and abundance of important juvenile fish species in the Albemarle Sound. Regional experts used his findings to modify SHA designations, including areas in the Roanoke River and Albemarle Sound.

Jennifer Weaver spent two years helping to conduct the SHA assessment of the Pamlico Sound. She assembled a GIS database of fish habitats, recommended a network of areas for SHA designation, and used geospatial and modeling techniques to summarize trends in fish abundance. Her results were incorporated into state conservation and restoration planning efforts.

Maps are useful in other plans as well. Liza Hoos has used data collected by agency observers to identify areas where endangered species, including Atlantic sturgeon and sea turtles, are caught in gill nets. Maps identifying “hotspots” may help state officials determine ways to reduce bycatch of these species, while allowing gill net fisheries to continue.

Overall, the partnership has been a successful two-way exchange, Duval notes. “The fellows provide important answers to questions of management and resources that are directly relevant to species we’re managing,” she adds. “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

The annual N.C. Marine Fisheries Fellowship is open to graduate students from Maryland to Texas. Go here to learn more about fellowship opportunities, and see where former fellows are now.

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