STONINGTON — A new collaborative research effort involving the Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries, NOAA Fisheries and the Department of Marine Resources could lead to significant changes in the way fisheries are managed in the Gulf of Maine.
In the works for more than two years, the research consortium will be known as the Eastern Maine Coastal Current Collaborative, or EM3C, Paul Anderson, new executive director of the Stonington-based Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries said last week.
The collaborative is the product of a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement among the three parties signed last November, Anderson said.
Known in the bureaucratic world as a “CRADA,” the agreement is “a federal tool for engaging non-governmental entities” in joint scientific projects and it took a long time to come into being.
“Robin worked a couple of years to get it,” Anderson said, referring to center co-founder and retired executive director Robin Alden.
According to Anderson, the collaborative is a pilot program that is “unique” in U.S. fisheries management.
“There’s no other program like this in the country,” he said.
The name chosen just last week for the new venture is closely related to its mission “to develop a research ‘framework’ for ecosystem-based fisheries management in the region defined by the Eastern Maine Coastal Current,” Anderson said.
That area, encompassing the Gulf of Maine from Canada in the east to Port Clyde on the Midcoast, is recognized as a distinctive and unique region by NOAA.
Historically, regulators on bodies such as the New England Fishery Management Council and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission have tried to manage the nation’s fisheries on a species-by-species basis without a conscious focus on how decisions aimed at protecting one stock — groundfish such as cod or haddock, or forage species such as herring or menhaden, for example — might affect other species and the communities, especially in eastern Maine, dependent on the fisheries that harvest them.
“I worry about eastern Maine,” Anderson said. With many fisheries severely restricted and fisheries managers narrowly focused on stock rebuilding targets, there is a real risk that coastal fishing communities as they exist now could be threatened. “I don’t want people here to end up doing service jobs, painting picket fences.”
That concern has played a significant part in the center’s engagement with the fishing industry and the way it is regulated.
“It’s not enough to just count fish anymore and divide them up,” Anderson said. “Let’s stop just managing each species and think about how they relate to one another and the ecosystem.”
EM3C hopes to do just that by establishing an approach to research over a five-year period that will examine the issues relating to the sustainability of any given fish stock in terms of its interrelationship with the entire regional ecosystem. To accomplish that, the collaborative members envision an interdisciplinary approach to research that involves not only fisheries scientists and marine biologists but social scientists as well, “even sociologists,” Anderson said.
The development of the framework the collaborative envisions is a long-term project, Anderson said, initially with a five-year scope, that will help future fisheries management policies to be “nimble, adaptive and paying attention to ecosystem changes.”
This summer, the organizations involved in the project plan to make “an inventory of what we know” across the various disciplines — both bio-scientific and social sciences — that have studied the region and its fisheries.
The next question will be to determine “what we don’t know, what questions we want to ask,” Anderson said. Perhaps the first visible, though not public, step along the way will be a November workshop — date and site still to be determined — hosted by the center’s senior scientist, Carla Guenther. Next spring, a larger group might meet to consider “the state of the science in eastern Maine.”
“We hope to help establish a long-term approach to adaptive management,” Anderson said, something that could take as long as 10 years to achieve.
The Center for Coastal Fisheries has a dual role in EM3C, Anderson said. The first, is “to make sure that local knowledge,” from fishermen, local scientists and other people familiar with the region “gets inserted into the process” through cooperative research and collaboration. “That helps us ask better questions.”
The center’s second task as a member of the collaborative is “to keep it going,” which will require it to “manage and facilitate partnerships” among disparate groups by “bringing public and private partners together” and join the efforts of “government and academic interests.”
A key to all of those plans involves the mundane but difficult chore of raising enough money to fund ongoing monitoring and research over a period of at least five years.
While the CRADA among the three parties may be unique in terms of research priorities and methods, it is all too ordinary in one sense: it comes with no federal or state funding.
That doesn’t faze Anderson, whose office on a Stonington pier looks out across the busy harbor to a distant horizon.
“I’d like to thing we can get non-governmental money for this,” he said.
There are many private foundations and non-governmental organizations that are concerned with fisheries, the ocean and the changing environment, Anderson said.
“If we could get a five-year commitment of $2 million or $3 million a year, we could create new science.”