Dr Steven Mackinson: Industry helping scientists find out if there are plenty more fish in the sea

Dr Steven Mackinson says that the days are gone when scientists and fishermen were at loggerheads over the state of fish stocks
Dr Steven Mackinson says that the days are gone when scientists and fishermen were at loggerheads over the state of fish stocks
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Good governance of our ­fisheries is essential if we are to ensure a sustainable future – but to manage stocks effectively we need as much scientific information as possible about their status and current trends.

But this costs money and resources – something which is inevitably ­limited. The end-result is that if our knowledge of a particular fish stock is scant, then poor management ­decisions are made, which is bad for the stock, and bad for fishermen and society as a whole.

Good governance is also about being transparent and involving stakeholders – which in this case are our hardworking fishermen. So why not provide fishermen with opportunities to actively participate in the ­scientific research and data collection process of our fish stocks and enable them to become part of the management process?

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

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

Such a move would empower fishermen, foster responsibility and encourage innovation and initiative in developing strategies that both protect our precious marine ­environment and enables the sustainable harvesting of fish.

Well, this is exactly what the Scottish Pelagic Fishermen’s Association (SFPA) is doing and over the last two years we have been participating in several research projects to boost our knowledge of mackerel and ­herring stocks. I was appointed chief ­scientific officer to the association in 2016, in a position that is supported by the Scottish Government under the auspices of the European ­Maritime & Fisheries Fund, with additional support from the Scottish Fishermen’s Trust and SPFA.

My role offers the unique opportunity to use commercial fishing ­vessels in membership of our association as scientific research platforms for ­collecting marine data. In effect, we are working toward providing a fleet of research vessels that can ply the open seas and engage in a variety of fisheries sampling work. As well as catch sampling data, such work can also include acoustic surveys and egg surveys.

In addition to fishing vessels, the factories at which they land their catch also provide great opportunities to collect scientific data in ways that complement their existing, and extensive, quality control sampling processes. One example, is looking at the fat content of fish, which is ­routinely measured to determine its tastiness, but can also be used to tell us more about the feeding conditions of the seas they swam in.

Together with colleagues from Marine Scotland, the Netherlands, Ireland and Germany, already we have led an extensive international scientific survey of Scottish west coast herring that yielded valuable data to determine the health of the stock. Acoustic and biological data gathered will eventually ­contribute to the scientific international stock assessment process used by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) to ­provide advice on annual quota ­limits and other ­management measures.

West of Scotland herring was the focus of this initial survey because, even though it is believed by fishermen and scientists that the southern and northern areas contain different stocks, the information needed by ICES to make that distinction is not available.

We have also been participating in trailblazing scientific research ­to assess the international stock status of north-east Atlantic mackerel. In this initiative, Scottish fish processing factories are playing a key role by recovering radio frequency identification tags from marked mackerel. Led by the Institute of Marine Research in ­Bergen, Norway, this study helps us to better understand mackerel ­populations and the information is used in management decisions for the ­fishery.

Our aim is to develop long-term systematic ­programmes that consistently ­provide quality-controlled data relevant to assessing and managing pelagic stocks. The first big step toward this will be an industry self-sampling pilot project, which is planned to get underway later this year once feasibility studies have been completed.

As a scientist, I pride myself on working with a wide range of other scientists, which helps in maintaining the links and skills necessary to be effective in the wider scientific ­community. I have recently co-authored a science paper on how practices used in New Zealand could benefit Europe’s implementation of the ecosystem approach to fisheries management, and another one on the biological implications of the proposed multi-annual management plan for North Sea fish stocks.

The most notable aspect of all this recent work is the enthusiasm of fishermen in becoming engaged in the science process. While the pelagic sector is demonstrating their ­leadership here, it is a phenomenon recognisable across all of the UK’s fishing sectors and beyond. Gone are the days when fishermen and ­scientists were at loggerheads over the state of fish stocks – now it is all about cooperation and working collaboratively for a common aim. I find that incredibly encouraging and will work continuously toward strengthening such bonds between fishermen and scientists over the coming years.

Dr Steven Mackinson, chief scientific officer, Scottish Pelagic Fishermen’s Association.