The FIRST Project - cosponsored by the West Coast Seafood Processors Association (WCSPA), the National Fisheries Institute, Oregon State University, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Coastal Oregon Marine Experiment Station, and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife - is a pilot program that uses seafood processing plant workers to collect fisheries data. Information such as length, sex, maturity, and species composition of landed catches are all necessary for accurate stock assessments, which are used to set quotas for the fishing season. On the west coast, this data is usually collected by State port biologists. Unfortunately, port biologists can survey only a minority of landed catch. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife only employs 3 permanent port biologists (one each in Astoria, Newport, and Charleston), with one additional full time employee to provide sampling support in each port - a total of six employees to check the over 200 million pounds of groundfish landed in Oregon in 1997. To make matters worse, fish are often delivered to plants in the evening or on weekends when samplers are not working. A substantial number of landings do not get sampled, making conservation and management decisions difficult.
The FIRST Project is trying to improve the situation by using fish plant workers to do the sampling. Workers from plants in Charleston, Newport, and the Astoria area were selected and trained by Ms. Tonya Builder, an Oregon State University graduate student and a National Marine Fisheries Service scientist who created the project, and have been collecting samples since July, 1998. Data collected by plant workers will be compared to similar data collected by port biologists and Ms. Builder to ensure quality.
Feedback from Ms. Builder, fish plant managers,
and port biologists has been very encouraging. "Not only are the
plant workers enthusiastic about participating in the research, but having
received the appropriate training they are gathering quality samples which
can potentially significantly increase the sampling percentages for groundfish,"
said Mr. John Seabourne,
the Port Biologist for the Charleston / Coos Bay area. "We can't possibly be at every dock taking samples every time groundfish is landed; any scientifically sound project that complements current sampling is welcome."
"It's an opportunity for the industry to really get involved in research, and we've been anxious to do that," said Heather Munro, Deputy Director of WCSPA. "This project is not designed to provide short-term increases in quotas, but to determine whether samples collected by plant workers can be used to produce more precise stock assessments. So far, all signs point to this idea working; there has even been interest from plants and fisheries managers in Washington and California who are waiting to see if similar projects can be developed in their States."
According to an economic analysis produced for the Pacific Fishery Management Council, losses to fishing vessels due to tightened restrictions on groundfish quotas in 1998 equaled over $15 million and almost $40 million to the seafood industry as a whole. The restrictions reflected the lack of data available for precise fisheries conservation.
"The major complaint from both industry and scientists is the lack of available data on west coast groundfish, " said Ms. Munro. "This is a great opportunity for the seafood industry to aid in research collection efforts. We want to show the fisheries managers and the public that we are good stewards of the resource and that we are willing and able to be a partner in research endeavors. The FIRST Project just makes good sense."