So are there plenty of fish in the sea?

Steven MacKinson, Chief Scientific Officer, SPSG
Steven MacKinson, Chief Scientific Officer, SPSG
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There can surely be few more daunting tasks – how on earth do you estimate the size of our commercial fish stocks? The sea is vast and three dimensional, fish stocks are often migratory and our marine waters are a tremendously challenging environment for people to work in – whether fishermen or scientists.

Yet reliable estimates of the size of fish stocks is essential if we are to ensure that we can sustainably harvest fish and ensure our nation’s food security. Such scientific work is both expensive and time consuming, and due to constraints on resources, national governments are sometimes unable to obtain the information they would ideally like from marine 
surveys.

But in our fishing fleets we have a great platform for carrying out such scientific work because boats are at sea throughout much of the year and fish in a wide variety of areas. This is why Scottish fishing vessels have contributed towards data collection for stock assessments in recent years under the fishing industry science partnership.

This year, however, Scotland’s mackerel and herring fishermen moved things one step further forward and I was delighted to have been appointed several months ago by the Scottish Pelagic Fishermen’s Association (SPFA) as their first ever Chief Scientific Officer.

The role is supported by the SPFA, the Scottish Government and the Scottish Fishermen’s Trust, and my broad-ranging remit will help drive forward scientific work to enhance our knowledge of pelagic stocks (mackerel, herring and blue whiting), which in turn will help in their sustainable management.

Appointing a dedicated marine scientist for such vital work is a strong commitment from Scotland’s mackerel and herring fishermen to contribute to our marine knowledge and provide key fisheries data. By using our pelagic vessels as floating research laboratories, the industry will be able to gather a wide range of information. For example, using their echosounders to measure fish abundance and distribution, or using scientific sampling tools to catch mackerel eggs

Currently, we are working on a two-phase project to survey stocks of herring to the West of Scotland and Ireland. We still have much to learn about West coast herring – for example, are they one continuous stock over the whole sea area or do they comprise different stocks?

Although it is believed by fishermen and scientists that the southern and northern areas are comprised of different stocks, there is currently no scientific confirmation of this because catch and survey data are only available at times when the two components are mixed together. By providing data to distinguish between them, the industry-led survey has a goal to help the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) to provide advice on the appropriate catches in the north and south. This is better for fishermen, and more crucially, better for the sustainable management of the fishery.

The project is an international collaboration involving fishermen and scientists from Marine Scotland, the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, IMARES Netherlands, Thuenen Institute Germany, Marine Institute Ireland, University College Dublin, the Killybegs Fishermen’s Organisation, Pelagic Freezer-trawlers Association and the SPFA.

During the first phase of this survey, six midwater fishing trawlers gathered vital acoustic and biological data off the Scottish west coast. The second phase, which will get underway shortly, will involve further surveys off the coast of Ireland.

This is a positive contribution by our fishermen to help sustainably manage our seas.

It is very much a two-way co-operative affair and the fishermen I have been working with have been intrigued by the complex way in which scientific information is gathered and disseminated. They have learned from us and we have learned from them.

This in turn helps foster mutual respect between fishermen and scientists, which can only bode well for the future management of our precious fisheries in the 21st century.

Dr Steven Mackinson, Chief Scientific Officer, Scottish Pelagic Fishermen’s Association