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Big sea, bigger data: How analytics are making peace between fishermen and turtles

Commercial fishing boats are docked in Montauk, N.Y., in January. Biologists hope data analysis can maximize fishermen's haul while minimizing environmental impact. (Julie Jacobson/AP)
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The ocean is complicated. Our tools to manage it are blunt.

We often approach the ever-changing ocean as if it were a stationary valley in a national park. We close entire coastlines and restrict fisheries to protect single species. We’re flummoxed by wide-ranging mobile marine life and unprepared for climate change.

But a new generation of data-driven tools balances the needs of fish and fishermen and adapts automatically as the environment changes.

With the government’s towering stockpiles of ocean data, scientists can use weather and ocean chemistry to predict where fishermen are likely to catch their intended targets, including swordfish or tuna, and avoid protected species, such as marine mammals, sharks or manta rays.

Google and Facebook analyze data to predict our behavior with unnerving precision. With dynamic ocean management, scientists use similar strategies to protect the areas where turtles, albatross or whales are most likely to congregate in a given day or hour.

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The effort allows regulators to close smaller areas of economically vital fisheries for shorter times. To protect threatened leatherback sea turtles as they range far and wide in pursuit of jellyfish swarms under the current system, you’d have to close huge swaths of the Pacific Ocean.

“The whole structure is antiquated. It assumes a level of stability that is definitely not happening,” said dynamic-management pioneer Sara Maxwell, who leads an ocean sustainability lab at University of Washington at Bothell. “The climate is changing. Fisheries are not prepared."

Unless, of course, you create a flexible algorithm that responds to ocean conditions and allows you to move closures to the small areas where data show the jellyfish — and the turtles that prey on them — are most likely to be found each day.

A data ‘revolution’

Dynamic ocean management is powered by what oceanographer Elliott Hazen of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration called a “revolution” in available ocean data and processing power.

“We can run these models on our computer in minutes to maybe an hour that would have taken us months 10 years ago,” Hazen said.

Hazen and his colleagues develop “big data” tools like EcoCast, which compares observed locations of leatherback turtles, sea lions, blue sharks and swordfish to satellite measurements of ocean conditions to create a daily map for the West Coast swordfish fishery. The maps pinpoint where fishermen are most likely to find swordfish and least likely to encounter turtles and other threatened species.

Scientists used tracking data from thousands of individuals as well as data from the independent observers who often accompany fishing boats. Their ocean-condition data include satellite measurements of ocean temperature, wind, moonlight, chlorophyll concentration, sea-surface height and eddy kinetic energy — a measure of ocean turbulence.

The team seeks to limit bycatch — marine bystanders that are unintentionally caught and sometimes killed when fishermen are pursuing their real target — while limiting the losses of the fishermen and other businesses. It’s a complicated calculus.

Bycatch expert Eric Gilman of Hawaii Pacific University showed in a newly published analysis that when fishermen adopted a hook shape designed to reduce bycatch of sea turtles, bycatch of open-ocean sharks jumped — probably because the new hooks made it harder for the predators to bite their way off the line.

Gilman argues that “piecemeal” management strategies don’t account for how restrictions will affect all species. Dynamic management could balance the needs of many species. Gilman, who is not affiliated with the project, said EcoCast “holds tremendous promise of mitigating bycatch of species of conservation concern while maintaining economic viability."

Typical fishery-management agreements are often hammered out over years or even decades of discussions between regulators, conservationists and fishermen — by which point the situation may have shifted.

“The resources you’re trying to conserve or utilize are mobile,” Duke University’s Daniel Dunn said. “The entire environment is fluid. Trying to take data from many years ago and trying to draw a box around it and assume those resources will be in the same place — and will be many years from now — is kind of crazy.”

Fishermen’s friend

Dunn said the most important piece of technology for dynamic management isn’t the advanced analytic tools; it’s the satellite phones and other devices regulators can use to communicate with fishermen out on the water.

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Regulators closed New England’s Atlantic-scallop fishery to enforce the limit of flounder bycatch so often that fishermen lost between $11 million and $19 million in revenue each year between 2006 and 2009, fisheries scientist Catherine O’Keefe calculated.

In 2010, O’Keefe (now with the Massachusetts fishery division) and University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth researchers began collecting fishermen’s reports of where they caught the forbidden flounder. She simply processed the data and emailed it out to fishermen. The flounder never closed the scallop fishery again. The flounder-limit system changed in 2014.

These strategies rely on America’s increasingly tech-savvy fishing fleets. Tools like EcoCast are another piece of data fishermen can evaluate as they head out to sea. And unlike many restrictions, these tools bring information of immediate relevance: where to fish most successfully and sustainably. “There’s widespread understanding that regulating catch is essential to having a sustainable fishing business,” said economist Alan Haynie of NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center.

If scientists can show where folks can avoid bycatch, “that’s the kind of thing that a lot of fishermen would be excited about,” Haynie said.

It’s a matter of incentives. Sometimes fishermen need a nudge. A data-driven program in Hawaii, TurtleWatch, recommended fishermen avoid areas where the ocean was between 63.5 and 65.5 degrees — the temperature at which sea turtles were most often encountered. It succeeded because there was a quota on bycatch — if they caught more than a few turtles, the entire fishery would be closed.

Columbia University economist Jeffrey Shrader, a self-described “Pacific tuna guy,” showed in a recent working paper that fishermen readily react to useful data.

During El Niño and La Niña, the Pacific tuna haul used to plunge to a third of its regular level. After NOAA began providing detailed forecasts of how those weather events would affect the fishery, “those big losses just disappear,” Shrader said.

“In the 2000s, when the forecasts were getting really good, then we see there’s no profit lost essentially at all during El Niño events,” Shrader said. “There’s a real human aspect to this in terms of knowing what the fishery needs, knowing how to communicate to the fishery in a way they’ll digest and find useful,” he added later.

It’s one tool of many

Maxwell, Dunn and Hazen stress that dynamic management won’t replace traditional marine reserves. Coral reefs can be set aside in perpetuity. Unlike sea turtles or sharks, they aren’t inclined to migrate.

“There’s extreme value in protecting habitat,” Hazen said.

Dynamic management should be used in addition to proven methods for reducing bycatch, Gilman said. Such methods include lights and barriers to keep turtles and other animals out of nets, as well as modifications to the filaments, buoys and hooks used in line-based fisheries.

According to O’Keefe, new approaches are needed. Standard management tools “have not put an end to overfishing or rebuilt fishing businesses,” O’Keefe said. “Dynamic ocean management provides flexibility.”