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Long before I ever picked up a fly rod, I was hauling fish on the decks of commercial fishing boats, off the coast of Maine, as the onboard scientist for a commercial fishery-style survey evaluating groundfish (Atlantic cod, Atlantic halibut, haddock, hake, etc.). I was 22, a graduate student at the University of Maine studying marine biology and marine policy.

photo courtesy of - Megan Hess
photo courtesy of - Megan Hess

My classroom was the deck of a boat.

photo courtesy of - Emily Farr

From left to right: Mattie Thompson, Mattie Rodrigue, and Phil Shea, are all smiles after a day of fishing.

photo courtesy of - Patrick Shepard

The fisheries research survey I was part of, known as the Eastern Gulf of Maine Sentinel Survey (Sentinel Survey), was started eight years ago as a collaboration between the University of Maine and Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries (MCCF), a non-profit organization that focuses on coastal fishing, community-based marine science and policy. The Sentinel Survey began as a response to the commercial collapse of groundfish in eastern Maine. The region is sparsely sampled by federal and state monitoring programs, so the Sentinel Survey, a local, collaborative program, was built to provide data on groundfish species in data-limited eastern Maine. My role was to collect data on species abundance, distribution, and biology, as well as to facilitate the collaborative platform between the University, MCCF, and the fishermen who participated in the survey program.

The fishermen I worked with came from fishing communities in eastern Maine. All had different personalities and fishing styles, but shared a common, deep-rooted appreciation for hard work. Each day for about five months every year, I’d hop aboard whichever participating vessel was heading out to sea that day, with a plethora of sampling equipment. The captain, a sternman, and I would travel out to a pre-selected station and deploy demersal longline gear (picture a long rope with a bunch of hooks attached to it that gets sunk to the ocean floor to catch the fish that live at the bottom), and use jig gear to sample the area with handlines while we let the longline soak for two hours. Then, we would haul up the longline and I, the “third-nerd” on board, would begin to process the fish.

The work was heavy, dirty, and difficult, but I loved every second. I’ll be honest, there was no grace to my methodology.

Mostly, I just tried to keep up with the agility of the fishermen, who were quick with the gear and quicker with the gaff.

They’d flip me a fish, and I’d measure it, weigh it, and take a suite of biological samples to be sent to various institutions for evaluation.

For example, I’d dissect the “otoliths” or earbones, of a fish and send them to the University of Maine to be processed. Each year a fish lives it lays down a layer of calcium carbonate; the layers can be counted and measured like tree rings to determine a fish’s age. I also took stomach samples to evaluate what other species the fish we caught were eating, fin clips to study genetics and evaluate population structure, and tissue samples for stable isotope analysis to reveal trophic interactions over time. I was able to create an index for several species which showed the changing temporal trends in the region, as well as distributional shifts per year. Additionally, I monitored the environmental conditions of each sampling station and evaluated the effects of water temperature, sediment structure, and depth ranges on the condition and abundance of groundfish species.

All this quantitative information was helpful, but it paled in comparison to the qualitative information I was receiving daily by communicating with fishermen onboard their vessels. Each fisherman brought with them a unique set of knowledge, based on their observations each season out on the water. They knew what we were going to bring up on the gear before we even set the longline, all based on location, bottom-habitat structure, water temperature, weather, and tide. I learned something new each day I went out fishing with them, and the more I learned the more I recognized what I didn’t know. I listened to stories of catches in the past, of thousands and thousands of huge, healthy codfish and haddock brought onboard, of changing temperatures and fluctuations in fish movements, and, most often, of the decline and collapse of the commercial groundfish fishery in eastern Maine.

photo courtesy of - Patrick Shepard

I learned what happened when large, factory-grade vessels came in to fishing grounds formerly targeted by smaller vessels that were captained by locals from the fishing communities in the Downeast region. And how, with a few years of heavy fishing and changing environmental conditions, these factory ships could easily decimate an entire local population of the fish that the local boats had depended upon.

During my second season running this research program, we expanded our survey to incorporate more sampling stations in Penobscot Bay, which was an area experiencing the effects of river restoration due to a large dam removal project upriver in the Penobscot. Post-removal, we began seeing vast improvements in the return of forage fish, especially the river herring, or “alewife,” that so many larger groundfish species depended upon for a prey source.

The alewife is a short-lived, fast growing anadromous species, and so, with habitat expansion (and stocking in certain areas) we began to see a near-immediate, and overwhelmingly positive explosion in population size. We started seeing local effects all the way out in Penobscot Bay, even foul-hooking alewife in the pelagic zone as we reeled our benthic jig gear up to the surface! And, where the forage fish were, so too were the seabirds, tuna, and whales.

Being able to witness the changes in the system I was monitoring in real-time, and with fishermen who had the historical, local ecological knowledge to compare against changes in the system, opened my eyes to the connectivity of the watershed and ocean systems in eastern Maine. I wanted to learn more about the rivers and the species that inhabited them.

So, I picked up a fly rod.

Residents of Maine are comfortable with a barter system, and so I was given an old rod and reel combo in exchange for helping a friend move. Another friend who had years of experience casting flies taught me how to put it together; to cast, double haul, and to tie more intricate knots than I had used on the commercial vessels. The first time I waded out into a river to cast, I remember thinking to myself how different the grace and finesse of fly fishing was than the commercial fishing I had done. Of course, I was still awkward with the gear, but what I lacked in original skill I made up for in enthusiasm.

I began exploring areas all over Maine to fish, poking around in different rivers and streams, getting tangled in trees, and losing flies, but never losing my fervor for exploring the next spot. The best part? When the next sampling season began, and I started fishing on the commercial vessels again, many of the fishermen I worked with had a treasure-trove of tips, tricks, secret spots, and stories of “monstah” trout they had landed through the years. I should have known that the fishermen who taught me so much about reading the ocean ecosystem were also totally dialed in to the riverine systems. The pulse of the fluctuations in the watersheds coupled with effects of wind, weather, offshore currents etc., all tied in to their ability to locate fish both inshore and offshore. They perceived local, place-based changes in their targeted fishing grounds, and provided long-term local ecological knowledge about a system, and the species within that system, that they depended on for their livelihoods.

Though fly fishing and commercial fishing are functionally quite different, the observational skills needed to be successful at both require a deep understanding of the ecosystem, and an ability to tune-in to the external fluctuations that cause the fish within them to adjust their behaviors. I realized that when we fish commercially or recreationally, we are all scientists in our own ways, with valuable knowledge and observations to share.

This lesson is particularly important as fisheries management shifts toward a holistic, ecosystem approach that factors in real-time fluctuations in the environment, as well as incorporates human interactions within the ecosystem.

We can work collaboratively with fishermen on a local scale to share knowledge, learn from each other, and find solutions that work for those who depend on these fisheries, both commercially and recreationally.

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