MREP bridging trust gaps between fishermen, scientists and regulators

Published on
October 26, 2016

At a recent workshop for recreational anglers in the Mid-Atlantic, Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office Regional Administrator John Bullard joined right in at the meeting table, absorbing the presentations alongside the fishing industry for several days. Frank Lockhart of the West Coast Regional Office crafted fictitious public testimony, which he delivered at the West Coast mock council meeting, adding a bit of levity and keeping it all very collegial, while still broaching important discussion points, Dayton said. To have these regulatory VIPs talk with the participants about the duties of the regional office and the complexities of law enforcement and quota-setting is eye-opening for fishermen who have come to think of regulators as a faceless bureaucracy.

“The program builds trust by introducing fishermen to the people who are actually doing the work behind the science advice, quota setting and the regulations,” she said. “People get time to get to know each other. They develop relationships, share stories and start talking about issues of concern to them.”

The learning goes both ways, Dayton said.

“[The regulators] learn from the fishing industry via the questions they get, and by the discussions that take place in the workshops, which are usually moderated by someone from the industry,” she said. “It’s important and powerful for them to hear about day-to-day struggles of fishermen on the water – and, on the flip side of the coin, for the fishermen to tell their stories.”

Bob Dooley, a commercial fisherman with the Seattle-based fishing company United Catcher Boats, vouched for MREP’s reputation as a bridge-builder and progress-maker. A longtime fisherman in the Bering Sea, Dooley has gotten more involved in fisheries advocacy, making several trips to Capitol Hill to lobby for several issues specific to the West Coast. Through that advocacy, he met MREP founder Mary Beth Tooley, who invited him to check out the program.

This past July, Dooley participated in an MREP workshop in Florida. He said he walked in not knowing much about the program, but came out a true believer in it.

“I can’t say I didn’t walk in with predisposed opinions of fisheries management science, as I’m sure the science and fisheries management people walked into that program with predisposed opinions of fishermen,” Dooley said. “The night before the conference started, the fishermen were sitting around the bar and complaining that fisheries scientists don’t know what the hell they’re doing – I remember him saying, ‘There’s tons of fish out there but they always say there’s not enough.’ I’ve been around long enough to know that’s a common enough fishermen’s conversation anywhere in the country.”

In the course of three days, that same fisherman had gained a completely different perspective.

“He was now saying, ‘These guys do know what they’re doing. This is way more complicated than I thought, and there are ways I can help in this process,’” Dooley said. “I also saw managers change their whole outlook on fishermen. MREP got us all thinking that this is a team effort and that we can and should work better together. I was amazed by that.”

Inspired, Dooley volunteered to help design the agenda for the West Coast MREP, which launched this fall. The biggest takeaway Dooley said fishermen have from the program is that when they don’t participate in data-collection efforts, that generally leads to lower quotas.

“By the standards of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, a lack of data means [regulators] have to be conservative in the quota allocations due to their uncertainty. So the more data that’s collected, and the more good research that comes out of that, the better for everyone,” Dooley said. “To get fishermen thinking that way, rather than not trusting the science and blaming management for not doing a good job, that’s the big challenge and opportunity of MREP.”

MREP also provides a great organizing opportunity for independent and small-boat fishermen, according to Dooley, a former small-boat fisherman himself.

“In my experience with the councils, there tends to be great inequity in fisheries management. People representing larger companies, which have the resources be involved on committees and come to council meetings with clearly defined problems and solutions, tend to get all the attention and result. The council likes taking that on, because it’s easy. On the other hand, I’ve seen 20 fishermen come up and speak independently on a particular item but with slightly different variation of that problem. That’s thrown into a council’s lap and for them, that’s a highly work-intensive problem – the kind that tends to fall off the cart because of a lack of understanding of how to make system work fairly for everyone,” Dooley said. “MREP has the power to change that dynamic. It gives people tools on how to engage and make better use of their time, and forges relationships that can help small-boat fishermen become more effective advocates for themselves.”

Dooley said the first West Coast MREP was fully subscribed and he expects the program to become even more popular as word spreads about its effectiveness.

“We’ve already secured the funding to do another program next year,” he said. “There’s a lot of industry excitement and support, and the council and agency are both really committed, which has been really exciting.”

The biggest frustration Dooley said he has with MREP is that it wasn’t created sooner.

“I only wish it was around 30 years ago when I started getting involved in fisheries management and chairs were being thrown at council meetings,” he said. “It could have saved a lot of frustration and time that was wasted.”

MREP now counts more than 1,000 graduates of its various programs around the country, including 700 in the Greater Atlantic region, 250 in the Southeast and 40 in the Spanish-language version in Puerto Rico, according to Dayton. The future of the program is looking strong, and it enjoys a healthy long-term partnership with NOAA Fisheries, which provides a solid funding foundation and contributes staff and expertise for program delivery.

“MREP has become a part of the institutional fabric of the science centers, regional office and councils, and we are really seeing the benefits playing out in accordance John and Mary Beth’s original vision – and it’s just what fisheries science and management needs to tackle the big problems ahead.” Dayton said. “This program is a community – it’s thanks to the many people who have thought hard about how to tailor these workshop events to speak to the needs of the fishing industry in their region that MREP has been such a success.”

In the goal of producing fisheries leaders, MREP has been wildly successful, with a current count of 66 MREP graduates going on to serve as a councilmember or in an advisory role to a council since the program began. But it’s the number of Advisory Panel members in each region that is truly significant – as Dayton puts it, that’s where the real action takes place in the council process. Thus far, 175 MREP graduates have served or are serving as advisory panels.

On the heels of its success, Dayton believes MREP has even more room to expand.

“We think the model is flexible enough to be useful anywhere there is fishing being done,” Dayton said. “It’s a great way to bring people together to get knowledgeable about the process of fisheries regulation, and just as importantly, creating productive participants in that process and leaders who will ensure that fisheries management continues to be done effectively in the future.”

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