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Big Challenges, Joint Solutions: Building Capacity for Collaborative Fisheries Research

Workshop bringing together fisherman and scientists to discuss collaborative fisheries research

Written By Janet Krenn, Virginia Sea Grant
Additional Reporting By Paula Ouder, Louisiana Sea Grant

On April 15, shrimp boat captains from Texas to Georgia shocked a room packed with conservationists and scientists. Not only did the shrimpers say they routinely used gear that reduces accidental catch of sea turtles, one captain added, “if the regulations weren’t there, I’d still use it.”

The surprise in the room was understandable. There has been a long-standing perception that fishermen and shrimpers didn’t like using turtle excluder devices, or TEDs and resented the regulations that required specific grates that covered the opening of towed nets to help keep turtles out. 

“All of a sudden there were serious captains saying they like and use TEDs, and it made [the researchers and conservationists] think twice,” recalls Tony Nalovic. Nalovic, a Virginia Sea Grant Collaborative Fisheries Research Fellow, was one of the co-organizers of the daylong workshop for fishermen and scientists. The goal of the workshop was to share examples and ideas on working together to conduct collaborative fisheries research. The event was organized by Virginia Sea Grant, World Wildlife Fund, and International Sea Turtle Society.

“You can’t just approach a fisherman and say, ‘this is what I want to do with your gear’,” says Nalovic. “You need to come up with ideas together. So when you have your results, industry knows the research originated with the fishermen’s needs in mind. There’s more credibility in the science and greater trust in scientists.”

Before coming to Virginia Institute of Marine Science for his masters, Nalovic worked with shrimpers in French Guinea to develop and test a new type of device that further reduced the accidental catch of sea turtles. The device Nalovic tested was a variation on the TED; his experiments demonstrated that the equipment was successful on commercial fishing boats. As a result of so many shrimpers adopting the new device, accidental catch of sea turtles in that fleet was practically eliminated. 

Nalovic says the shrimpers liked using TEDs because they had benefits beyond turtle conservation. They kept large animals out of nets, so boats pulled less weight and saved fuel. Without larger animals crushing shrimp in the trawls, product got to market in better condition. They also reduced catch of finfish, which reduced the number of hazardous animals like stingray and sharks that ended up on deck.

Still, Nalovic says, “it’s not one TED fits all.” TEDs were designed for larger trawl boats. Smaller boats that fish in shallow coastal waters could have trouble pulling a standard TED. TEDs deployed incorrectly could drown turtles, increase fuel usage and habitat damage, and lose product.

One shrimp boat captain on the panel suggested that if he could increase the angle of inclination and reduce the bar spacing of a TED in the trawl net, he would reduce bycatch and save on fuel. He told the workshop attendees, “these changes aren’t allowed, but I’d be interested in working with a scientist to test different bar spacing’s and angles.”

“Clearly, there’s a need for collaborative fisheries research,” says Virginia Sea Grant Director Troy Hartley. Hartley co-organized the workshop and saw it not only as an opportunity to increase understanding between industry and researchers but to also recruit the next generation of researchers trained in collaborative fisheries research methods. Although the April workshop focused on shrimp fisheries and turtle bycatch, the approach is applicable to other fisheries looking to improve gear or fishing methods.

“The U.S. had more conservation engineers and gear researchers in the past, but now we’re seeing a lot of retirements, and fewer researchers are replacing them,” Hartley says. To build that capacity, Hartley pilot-tested a Collaborative Fisheries Research Fellowship Program to train graduate-level scientists in working with industry.

Now Hartley, Nalovic, and the workshop team are developing more training and research opportunities to build capacity in the U.S. and around the world. Already the team is planning a workshop at the International Sea Turtle Society’s 2015 annual meeting. Locally, Hartley aims to offer a Collaborative Fisheries Research Fellowship for a graduate student in Virginia next fall, and Nalovic anticipates continuing his work with Virginia Sea Grant and will begin new collaborative projects with shrimpers in Suriname and Mozambique, Africa when he graduates.

The April 16 workshop titled “Developing Collaborative Research Capacities Among Marine Turtle Conservationists” was held at the 2014 International Sea Turtle Society Symposium in New Orleans. The keynote talk “Collaborating with Fishers to Reduce Bycatch: 30 years of education” was presented by Dr. Martin Hall, Head of Tuna-Dolphin Program at Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission and can be viewed online at:

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