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Scientists Try to Count Fish in Sea

Biologists Keith Whiteford, from left, Butch Webb and Paul Piavis pull in one of several nets they have planted in the Choptank River to count fish.
Biologists Keith Whiteford, from left, Butch Webb and Paul Piavis pull in one of several nets they have planted in the Choptank River to count fish. (By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)

"Managing fisheries is not managing fish," said Serge Garcia, director of fishery resources for the U.N. organization. "It is managing the activity of people."

"That's part of the problem," agreed Larry Jennings, a recreational angler and Greater Washington Chapter president of the Coastal Conservation Association, a nationwide group. "It's all politics, run by people who have a vested interest . . . and people who are pushing harder and harder to maximize what they get."

Scientists are experimenting with futuristic ocean sonar and lasers, but the high cost ensures that fish counting, or stock assessment, usually means "dragging a net through the water, translating technical data into what an underfunded, understaffed agency can do," said James Uphoff Jr., a biologist on Maryland's natural resources staff.

In smaller bodies of water, "electrofishing" stuns fish, which then float to the top long enough for an estimate. Biologists trawl for samples. And they scramble atop towers and dams to count fish on spawning runs.

To refine the picture, researchers measure and age fish. They can learn about one fish from another by analyzing stomach contents. Or they can count the creatures that live off of that fish. Some believe that the number of red knot, a migratory shorebird, has declined along with the horseshoe crab because red knot feed on the crab's eggs.

But often, anglers are the most important source of data. Dockside, fisheries managers assess what is unloaded from boats and what was thrown back. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration calls thousands of seacoast households, asking anglers how often they fished, what they caught and how big the catches were.

Researchers then plug all this data into elaborate formulas and forecast the future of a fish.

"Fishery stock assessment is a much more mature science than a lot of people like to think it is," said Steve Murawski, chief scientist for the National Marine Fisheries Service. "If you have a high harvest rate and you have a good accounting, you know what's going on."

But dozens of factors, including fish habits and fishing trends, environmental change and human nature make the numbers fallible.

In a chandeliered hotel conference room in Arlington County a month ago, scientists, fisheries managers and fishing interests from 15 coastal states at the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission's meeting sat down to learn what little is known about the American eel.

The session was a lesson in the weakness of science when pitted against the human need to make a living from the sea.

At the head of the room, Matt Cieri, a stock assessment scientist at the Maine Department of Marine Resources, and David Secor, a biologist at the University of Maryland's Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, reviewed eel data. Some studies were small, others were incomplete, but they all showed "a decline, many of which are at their historic lows," Cieri said.

Eels are harvested as bait for fish and crab pots, and in the past three decades, they have fed a booming market led by exports to Asia and Europe. Harvests have plunged since 1980, raising fears about overfishing. So much of the eels' habitat has disappeared that the federal government is considering listing the snakelike fish as endangered.

As the last slide faded from the screen, Cieri concluded: "There's a realistic possibility that this species will not maintain a healthy and viable population throughout its historic range."

George Lapointe of Maine's marine resources department took the side of the fish, arguing that the commission should move forward on a limit to eel fishing.

In the back of the room, Barry Kratchman, president of the Delaware Valley Fish Co., nudged his attorney, Charles Sensiba, who rose to read a statement.

"We are concerned . . . with some of the comments today suggesting that we should move forward now," he read. "Delaware Valley strongly believes that it would be inappropriate to make any decision that would impact the lives and livelihoods of many people when the support for such action has not yet been identified."

Maine's Lapointe said, "In saying I think we need to move forward, I don't want to move forward rashly."

Soon after, the group agreed to study the eels further, and the meeting was adjourned.

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