‘Trawlgate’ Successor Boat’s Nets Questioned

by Don Cuddy

“We tried to talk them into a bigger net or using a bridle to mimic a 400-horsepower tow but they said no.”
— Bob Taber, Trawlworks,
Narragansett, RI

NOAA’s 208-foot research vessel Henry B. Bigelow was designed and outfitted to improve scientific sampling and provide an accurate assessment of East Coast groundfish populations for the National Marine Fisheries Service. The Bigelow is described by NOAA as “one of the most technologically advanced fisheries survey vessels in the world.” But two of the New England companies that worked together to design and build trawling gear for the $54 million state-of-the-art ship say the nets are too small, which could affect survey results as it gathers critical information about cod, haddock, flounder and other groundfish species in the Northeast fishery.

Net designer Tor Bendiksen, of Reidar’s Manufacturing in Fairhaven, who worked on the gear project with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said industry input only went so far.

“It’s an industry-standard net, and fishermen do use the net they are now set up with,” he said. “But I have concerns about the size trawl and the size doors compared to the vessel they are using it on.

“A 100-horsepower boat towing a 100-horsepower net is going to catch more fish than a 1,000-horsepower boat towing a 100-horsepower net. The Bigelow is a 3,000-horsepower vessel, and you could very easily overspread the net. We offered them a bigger net design but they had their own parameters.”

Gear designer Bob Taber, of Trawlworks Inc. in Narragansett, who also served on a panel formed to design the trawl gear, agreed that the dynamics with such a large vessel are not the same.

“We tried to talk them into a bigger net or using a bridle to mimic a 400-horsepower tow but they said no,” Taber said. “It’s a fantastic vessel, but the sea characteristics are totally different and it cannot mimic the package that the net and the doors were designed for.

“There is quite a different action on the whole gear compared to what a smaller vessel would be towing.”

A lead researcher with NOAA maintains the net size is fine.

Dr. Russell W. Brown, chief of the National Marine Fisheries Service Ecosystems Surveys Branch, said a larger trawl would be undesirable because it would catch more animals than needed to get a statistically representative sampling of marine life.

“We would needlessly kill and discard millions of juvenile fish and invertebrates,” he said. The Bigelow’s trawl gear is also equipped with sensors that provide information while towing, Brown said. “We constantly monitor door spread and wing spread on each tow, and observations show that Bigelow is achieving a constant spread across a range of depths.”
In addition, he said, because of its diesel/electric propulsion system, towing speeds can be adjusted as needed. "You can tune this boat to be a 3,000-horsepower boat or you can tune it to be a 750-horsepower boat," he said.

The Bigelow conducted a stock assessment of East Coast groundfish populations this spring and is presently at sea for the fall survey.

Launched in 2005, it permanently replaces NOAA's longtime survey vessel Albatross IV, which was retired in November 2008 amid widespread criticism by the fishing industry.

In 2002, it was discovered the marks on the trawl wires towing the net aboard Albatross IV were mismatched. This meant the net was improperly deployed during survey tows. The imbalance distorted its shape, allowing fish to evade capture and negatively skewing the research data.

However, Brown expressed confidence that this painful incident, which became known on the waterfront as “Trawlgate,” is now firmly behind the agency.

“There were some issues, and I am the individual that discovered them when I took over,” he said. “We had a problem in 2002. But that spawned some very big improvements in the way we conduct our bottom trawl survey.”

An advisory panel was formed to help design both the gear and the protocols for the new research vessel, Brown said.

“It was a four-year process. We reached out to fishing gear designers. We also had commercial fishermen, fishery council members and advisory scientists determine what the gear characteristics would be.”

John Knight of Superior Trawl in Point Judith, R.I., was the third net designer involved in the development of the Bigelow's gear.

“It’s a complicated question,” he replied when asked if Bigelow’s net was too small. “Probably you would get a more efficient net if it was bigger. But with this net they had to shorten their tow times from 30 minutes down to 20 because it’s catching so much they have had to do more sub-sampling (using only a portion of the catch to gather data). So there has to be some kind of trade off.”

National Marine Fisheries Service surveys are used to set catch limits in the New England ground fishery and, with current regulations based on data obtained by Albatross IV, they remain highly contentious, with fishermen claiming stock abundance has returned but is widely under-reported.

Earlier this month, Gov. Deval Patrick, in an urgent letter to Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, asked the secretary to “address the serious need for a credible groundfish stock assessment.”
The governor also asked the secretary to raise catch limits “to the maximum possible extent” and requested $2.1 million in funding to conduct a cooperative groundfish assessment program in partnership with federal, state and industry stakeholders.

This story originally appeared in South Coast Today.


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