MREP bridging trust gaps between fishermen, scientists and regulators

Published on
October 26, 2016

In most coastal areas of the United States where fishing is a significant part of the economy, it’s taken for granted that fishermen and regulators don’t think fondly of each other.

Fishermen are convinced regulators don’t know what they’re doing. Regulators are frustrated that fishermen don’t put much stock in their scientific assessments.

This mistrust has real consequences. Fishermen begrudge – and sometimes flaunt – regulatory decisions. Regulators come off as vengeful or pedantic. Meetings between the two parties devolve into shouting matches. Scientific conclusions get ignored or flaunted, and opportunities for improving the accuracy of stock estimates through greater participation are lost amidst the acrimony.

About 15 years ago, two members of the New England fishing industry, John Williamson and Mary Beth Tooley, created the Marine Resource Education Program (MREP) with the goal of initiating a more positive era of fisher-regulator relations.

The program brought regulators –mostly senior officials – together with commercial fishermen and other representatives from industry for a three-day get-together. While the program has been fine-tuned over the years – most notably with the Gulf of Maine Research Institute taking over the management of the program in 2005 after several years as a pilot study at the University of New Hampshire – the key to its longevity has been a deep collaborative approach to program design and delivery, and a simple and wildly successful idea originally articulated by John Williamson: give all parties ample time to listen to each other’s perspectives and get to know each other on a personal level, and explain the process in plain English.

Today, there are three different regions with MREPs, including the flagship New England/Mid-Atlantic program, a program in the Southeast, and a program attuned to the specialized needs of recreational and charter-for-hire fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico, South Atlantic, and the Caribbean, plus a newly launched MREP for the West Coast.

Alexa Dayton and her staff, who support all of the MREP regional teams through the GMRI, said MREPs have been found to be most effective when a core team collaborates to develop the workshop agenda and host each of these events, creating a community atmosphere that welcomes newcomers to fisheries science and management.

“MREP runs through the basic skillset needed to be effective at cooperative science and participation in the council,” Dayton said. “Fisheries science is confusing at best, and the council is a very foreign and emotional situation for many people. It’s frustrating and can take years to figure out. We want to shorten that learning curve – by a lot.”

The number of participants in each workshop is small enough to allow everyone to get to know each other well, and so every class is capped at 28 participants. She said participants are chosen by an admissions committee, with the idea of achieving a balance within each group, with people from a mix of geographic locations, with representatives of the commercial, charter and recreational sectors, and folks who are in different fisheries and using different gear types.

“MREP participants are chosen with an eye towards developing leaders,” Dayton said. “For the training we want a diversity of voices in the room, as one-sided discussions tend to defeat the purpose of broadening the dialogue.”

The program stands firm on neutrality, and so while each region’s MREP has its own local issues that it tackles, those aren’t the focus of the program. Rather than diving headfirst into politically sensitive issues, Dayton said, the program begins by guiding everyone at the table through the basics of the regulatory process governing U.S. fisheries, with a special emphasis on NOAA’s Regional Cooperative Science and Stock Assessment Methods, and the Regional Fishery Management Councils, which are the main regulatory bodies empowered by the Magnuson-Stevens Act to oversee regional fisheries and, if necessary, set catch limits.

“The decisions made by those councils are very important to fishermen, but historically they have felt left out of the council’s decision-making process and the science governing those decisions is complex and difficult to absorb,” Dayton said. “At MREP, the scientists and regulators in attendance explain what they do, down to spelling out the acronyms. They’ll talk about the how data is collected, models are crunched and then ultimately how the council is required to balance the economics of the seafood industry with the conservation of the species. We talk about issues of local importance but we try to avoid conversations that would lead to finger-pointing – we aim to provide a neutral education about the process. That has been a real challenge at times – and thanks to our many fishermen discussion moderators over the years we have been able to stay on track.”

The regulators in attendance are often bigwigs – NOAA’s chief stock assessment scientists, executive directors from the regional councils, and NOAA regional office leaders have all presented at MREP meetings in the past, in addition to prominent academics from SMAST and other universities. Southeast Regional Administrator Roy Crabtree is a regular, and commits much of his time during the three days to listening and mingling with fishermen.

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