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A Commons Comedy Fueled by Data

Imagine you are a fisherman and haul in a catch with fish that are protected and that would get you in trouble. Quick! Hide it! Deny it! etc., right? Nope. The Times reports that a partnership among fishermen and the Nature Conservancy meant that this fisherman reported the catch so the overall area could thrive.

The story starts in the usual eco-group takes on industry way with the NC buying “out area fishing boats and licenses in a fairly extreme deal “forged with the local fishing industry to protect millions of acres of fish habitat.” But the NC put the fleet back to work using a commons model.

Bringing information technology and better data collection to such an old-world industry is part of the plan. So is working with the fishermen it licenses to control overfishing by expanding closed areas and converting trawlers — boats that drag weighted nets across the ocean floor — to engage in more gentle and less ecologically damaging techniques like using traps, hooks and line, and seine netting.

The conservancy’s model is designed to take advantage of radical new changes in government regulation that allow fishermen in the region both more control and more responsibility for their operating choices. The new rules have led to better conservation practices across all fleets, government monitors say.

The challenges here were that “There wasn’t scientific information at that level that could match the fisherman knowledge.” Fisherman did not trust the NC, but when the NC bought some of the boats or permits from those who wanted to leave the industry, “The fishermen soon divulged which nurseries and rock formations needed to be protected and which areas where mature fish congregated should be left open. What resulted was a proposal that included large areas of closings — nearly 4 million acres — that most fishermen thought was fair. It was adopted easily by the fishery council in 2006.”

Now let’s look at the data magic. The NC uses a system called eCatch. According to the Times, fisherman were not sure about this reporting requirement “But fishermen have come to believe that the data will show patterns — for example, high catch rates of certain species after full moons along the edge of the shallow water shelf in July — that will help them all predict the danger zones. Independent fisherman have joined the risk pool and eCatch system because they see benefits. By handing out free iPads, the conservancy made the posting of real-time results almost effortless.”

And, it seems other areas are emulating this approach. “In Massachusetts, scallop fishermen, with the help of the University of Massachusetts, have developed a similar reporting program to avoid pulling in endangered yellowtail flounder.” Could lobster fishermen be far off from this method? Afterall at least with other seafood efforts the new method “yields profits and hardly any bycatch” (the term for catching sensitive species which can lead to market problems). And in what looks like another aspect of this commons comedy, in one case a family that sold its permit and leases it back at fair market value as long as the method “continues to use Scottish seining, which is far gentler to the ocean bottom than trawling is.”

Rather than the fight between nature groups and industry the fisherman offered a different picture: “The Nature Conservancy had identified that the small family boats were sustainable, and they wanted to help,” Mr. Fitz said. “We recognized that we needed help negotiating this increasingly confusing path into the future.”