Working Knowledge: Fishermen Become Scientists

by Chris Reeves

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It’s early April in Chatham, Massachusetts. Crisp morning winds dally across the green waters of Stage Harbor. Fisherman Ernie Eldredge, and scientist Owen Nichols work at the end a short fishing pier that has been in continuous use since the 1700’s. They secure stacks of forty five-foot long hickory poles to the top of Eldredge’s stout green fishing boat. It’s time to set the traps.

Photo 1 - Weir Arial

Arial photo of the “bowl” of Eldredge’s fish weir near Chatham, MA.

Eldredge drives the boat west into Nantucket Sound. They’re on the way to install the poles that support his family’s fishing weir into the sandy seafloor. The weir is a long underwater fence that redirects fish into a bowl-shaped net where they can then be harvested from Eldredge’s boat. Once the weir nets are hung later in the month, Eldredge and his family will return to the trap to harvest fish every day through September. In addition to supporting the intricate net for gathering seafood, the weir provides an excellent platform for collecting oceanographic information. That’s where Nichols comes in.

Owen Nichols is director of Marine Fisheries Research at the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Massachusetts. He is combining his training in science with Eldredge’s lifelong knowledge of the sea to study how changing oceans affect fishermen’s ability to harvest food.

New England fisheries are in trouble. Generations of intimate knowledge of the sea, and the character that fishing adds to Cape Cod’s communities, are threatened as rapidly warming oceans, changing marine ecology, and competing economic interests make it difficult for local fishermen to earn a sustainable living.

Adapting to Change

Fishing families on Cape Cod need to adapt to both a changing ecology and economy. Decades of overfishing have led to the collapse of most of the major fish stocks in New England, including the iconic cod. Compounding the impacts of low fish stocks, a 2015 study published in Science correlated rapidly warming waters in the Gulf of Maine — which are warming faster than any other part of the ocean — with fewer cod reaching maturity and reproducing. Many other commercially important marine animals are changing their behavior and distributions to adapt to higher temperatures.

Inaccurate estimates of groundfish stocks in the Gulf of Maine that did not include the environmental effects of climate change, led the Department of Commerce to close New England groundfish fisheries in 2012, despite today’s fishermen adhering to strict catch limits. It was declared a fisheries disaster. Congress approved $32.8 million in emergency subsidies to support northeastern groundfish fishermen in 2014.

Low fish stocks and changing oceans mean that work opportunities for fishermen are dwindling.

Low fish stocks and changing oceans mean that work opportunities for fishermen are dwindling.

In this changing economic seascape, some Cape Cod fishermen have begun to employ their expertise in other ways. Some use their fish-finding abilities to take tourists on sportfishing trips. Other fishermen, like Paul Avellar of Orleans, MA, provide educational trips for Cape Cod tourists who want to see the gray seals and other wildlife along the coast of the southern Cape.

A few Cape Cod families that do hope to continue providing food from the sea have begun looking for ways to diversify operations by doing things like growing shellfish to supplement their traditional fishing methods. Shannon Eldredge, Ernie’s daughter, experiments with growing mussels to augment the income from her family’s weir fishery.

In addition to fortifying their income, fishermen know they need to supplement their knowledge of the ocean’s interconnected ecosystems in order to sustain their livelihoods into the future. Science can help them make those connections.

While talking with fishermen on Cape Cod about their concerns, Owen Nichols found that they were already thinking critically about how to better sustain their natural resources. Nichols realized that their working knowledge of the sea could prove invaluable when applied to the scientific method. “Every fisherman that I know is a scientist,” says Nichols. “Most fishermen have an immense respect for the natural world and a deep understanding of it.”

“Scientists, I think, viewed fishermen as … out there just to get whatever they possibly could and not have any sense of what ramifications there are if you destroy the habitat, or discard millions of pounds of fish,” says Eldredge. “The only way that you can fish tomorrow is to preserve the young from today.” Eldredge and his family were willing to try science.


When Owen Nichols wanted to study how environmental factors changed the distribution of squid in Nantucket Sound, he needed to catch them. Nichols had a big problem. “I don’t know how to fish,” he says.

Ernie Eldredge has worked on the ocean for nearly fifty years, having learned how to fish from his father. After meeting with Eldredge and his wife Shareen Davis in their living room to discuss the ideas for his project, Nichols recognized that Eldredge has a practical understanding of the ocean, its life, and its intricacies that most scientists never experience. “Fishermen see things that we don’t see and see things at scale that we don’t observe,” says Nichols.

They decided to help each other, and start from scratch. “This is fishermen and I sitting down and developing testable hypotheses from the beginning,” says Nichols. He began listening to fishermen on Cape Cod and involving them in the entire research process, from planning to publishing.

One of their early conversations led to Eldredge’s concerns that seals were getting inside his family’s weirs and eating the fish that were trapped inside. In 1972, the United States passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), putting and end to bounties that had been paid for killing seals in New England since the 1890’s. The law worked. Gray seal populations are rebounding. Today, the seals maintain robust rookeries on beaches throughout Cape Cod and Nantucket Sound. Scientists see them as a sign of recovering ecosystems, but fishermen are concerned about seals eating fish from their catch.

Gray seals pose a big problem for Eldredge’s fishery in particular. He uses stationary traps that hold the live fish in a pen. The weirs are like putting food on plates for the gray seals. The seals are smart, says Eldredge. “They know their way in and out of the weirs better than we do.” In addition to their continuing research on squid, Nichols and Eldredge set about developing a specific study on the seal’s behavior in the weirs.

Fisherman Ernie Eldredge talks about his work with scientist Owen Nichols to keep seals out of his fish traps.

Photo 2 - Nichols Paper

Eldredge is listed as second author on a published scientific research paper about gray seal behavior in fish weirs.

Nichols’ work with Ernie Eldredge to study gray seals was published in the Marine Technology Society Journal in 2014. They found that seals were more active at night, and the sonar and cameras they used to observe the seals’ behavior helped them in their ongoing efforts to design ways to keep seals out of the weirs.

What Works

Nichols’ work with fishermen on Cape Cod emulates the successes of other research institutions that cultivate collaboration, such as Fishermen and Scientist Research Society in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Nichols’ Alma Mater, the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth School for Marine Science and Technology (SMAST).

Oregon State University’s Coastal Oregon Marine Experiment Station (COMES) also conducts a broad range of collaborative fisheries research along the west coast of the United States. Gil Sylvia, Director of COMES, thinks that transparency, communication, and mutual respect between scientists and fishermen throughout the research process are invaluable to effective collaboration. “We present our results as we’re working through them, we ask for fishermen’s advice, … or even interpretations of some of our early findings,” says Sylvia.

Sylvia also thinks that choosing projects that are relevant to the fishing industry is essential. “The key here is that there’s incentive for fishermen to participate,” says Sylvia. Nichols provides that incentive for the fishermen he works with on Cape Cod by taking on research that tackles local issues, like studying seals in weirs. He is also giving fishermen credit for their work in ways that matter most to the scientific community. He includes them as coauthors on the published scientific research they conduct together.


Scientist Owen Nichols talks about incorporating fishermen’s knowledgeinto the scientific process, from planning to publishing.

In a 2011 paper published in the Journal of Ocean Technology, Nichols, along with fisherman John Baldwin, former fishermen and Shellfish Constable Tony Jackett, and scientists Mark Borelli and Parker Small Jr., combined their ocean expertise to identify areas of marine habitat that would be good for shellfish aquaculture. Nichols helped secure shellfish grants – like plots of land in the ocean – for local fishermen to grow clams and oysters in areas of deeper water than they are traditionally grown. This allows them to farm shellfish in areas that avoid conflicting with other fishermen and recreational boaters.

Nichols is currently working with fishermen on four other research projects. One of those studies may have long-term implications for managing natural resources on the southern cape. Nichols and former fisherman Ted Lucas are conducting a thorough survey of organisms living in the Pleasant Bay estuary system, near Chatham, Massachusetts.

The Pleasant Bay estuary provides ecosystem services like buffering coastal erosion, filtering water, and providing oxygen. It is also rookery habitat for several commercially important species of food organisms like squid and clams. No comprehensive survey of Pleasant Bay has been conducted since the 1960s.

The bay’s waterfront has changed a lot since then. Many of the properties that abut the coastal waterways maintain non-native landscaping and lawns. Runoff containing too many nutrients from fertilizers can damage sensitive wetlands and seagrass beds. Understanding the ecological connections between sensitive coastal habitats, human activities, and fisheries can help the community of Chatham make informed decisions about how best to manage waterfront resources.

Nichols and Eldredge are now in their tenth year of research on longfin inshore squid. They have a robust data set that is roughly twice as long as most PhD. research projects.

Monitoring environmental factors that correlate with squid abundance in Nantucket sound has helped them determine that there are optimal temperatures and dissolved oxygen levels that the squid need to survive and reproduce. The relationship between squid and temperature was something that Eldredge already suspected. “We knew when it got to a certain degree, that’s when we would start seeing our fish, especially the squid,” says Eldredge. “You can almost set your clock by it.”

Now, a decade of scientific data corroborates Eldredge’s experience. “Our modeling work looking at environmental factors that drive squid distribution match what the fishermen knew already,” says Nichols. He adds, “It’s kind of neat to see that validation of what they’ve been telling the scientists for a long time.”

Nichols and Eldredge hope that incorporating fishermen’s ocean expertise into scientific research will lead to better fisheries management decisions that preserve the character and livelihood of Cape Cod’s fishing community as well as its ecosystems.

Nichols says that their work is still small-scale. “I don’t think that all of the work that we do has broad-reaching management implications yet,” Nichols says. “Hopefully that momentum will build as we work and study and innovate together.”

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