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Fishermen go deep in search of catch
By Renu Sehgal - March 7, 1997
Northeast fishermen are entering a new frontier -- deep regions of the sea. But unlike some explorers in history, the fishermen and University scientists are treading carefully.
"Many countries already harvest the deep sea and its resources, but waters off the Northeast coast of the United States have remained largely untouched," said Nancy Balcom, an educator with the Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program. "Unlike nearshore species, the biology and ecology of many deep-sea marine resources remain a mystery. How much fishing pressure these stocks can withstand is also unknown."
Normal Northeast fishery resources have diminished because of overfishing, pollution, loss of habitat and natural population fluctuations. Management regulations also have decreased the availability of traditional fishing stock through quotas on catches, limits on days at sea and gear restrictions. Facing economic hardship and even bankruptcy, fishermen must expand their scope to other species in non-traditional areas, Balcom said.
Three southern New England fishing families are exploring the deep sea, hoping to find new fishery resources under Fishing Industry Grants awarded in 1994 from the National Marine Fisheries Service of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The grants are part of $9 million appropriated from Congress to support Northeast fishermen in their exploration of new opportunities in fisheries, aquaculture and marine business.
The western Atlantic fishermen, two from Connecticut and one from Rhode Island, outfitted their vessels to explore the deep waters off southern New England. The goal is to identify the possibilities of using the last unexplored and undeveloped source of fishing, determining whether it would be economically viable for the industry and safe for fish populations.
"In general, deep-water species tend to be slower than their nearshore counterparts in growth and sexual maturation. Reproductive effort is lower and populations may not be resilient to change," said Balcom, scientific advisor and liaison for the three fishermen, to the National Marine Fisheries Service. "It's important that fishery scientists and fishermen alike learn as much about these species as possible to ensure that they are not mined out with no chance of sustainable stable populations."
Captains Walter and James Allyn of Mystic received $293,000 to outfit the F/V Matthew Melissa to trawl for fish in depths of 1,000 fathoms (6,000 feet). They made eight cruises between May and the end of July. They found redfish and monkfish, but not roughy, as anticipated. One of the invertebrate specimens they brought in, a crustacean known as an isopod, is believed to be a new species, Balcom said. Scientists at Yale Universitys Peabody Museum are working on the identification.
Capt. Harold Loftes Jr. of Wakefield, R.I., received $252,000 to fish for shrimp at depths of 100-700 fathoms (600-4,200 feet) with the F/V Mary Elena. Capt. William "Bill" Bomster and sons Bill, Joe and Mike used a $118,000 grant to trawl for scarlet shrimp at depths of 250-450 fathoms (1,500-2,700 feet) on the F/V Patty Jo.
The Bomsters, who completed their work in the fall, did not find commercial quantities of scarlet shrimp, but they landed 11,000 pounds of royal red shrimp. John Leamon, a University graduate student, served as onboard scientist, gathering data on the shrimp and catches. Shrimp purchasers were asked to rate the quality and properties of the shrimp and indicate prices they would be willing to pay on the market.
The experimental cruises, which are short, enabled the fishermen to get used to new gear and look for unknown species over large areas. While the results to date are promising, Balcom said more study is needed of deep-sea species themselves as well as continued exploration for species that could be commercially viable.
All three fishing groups plan to continue their experimentation when time and money permit. The grants may have spawned another research effort to expand the study of deep-sea fishing in the Northeast.
Meanwhile, Balcom is working to identify all the fish samples brought in during the cruises. She is also working with the Peabody Museum to preserve the specimens and make them available for scientific study.
"These grants also provide an excellent opportunity to get samples of rare or unusual deep-sea species," she said.