Trade Secrets At Sea—How Much Information Is Enough?
*This post was slightly modified from its original version on Dec. 4, 2012
Marine fisheries observers rarely claim a space in the media spotlight. It’s an obscure job—only a couple of hundred people work as full-time observers in ports across the country—but the valuable at-sea data they collect for the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is used by fisheries managers, fish biologists, and watchdog groups alike. In the October 26th issue of Science, however, fisheries observers made national science news. Earlier this year, NOAA announced the proposal of a new rule that would dictate how much, and in what detail, information collected by observers is made available to those outside government. Limiting the use of these data is controversial because the observer program uses government funds—$40 million according to Science—and because the agency is mandated with managing a resource of the public trust, something that’s difficult to do well while restricting data. To me, though, this issue is anything but obscure. In “my other life,” prior to joining COMPASS, I worked as a marine fisheries observer for nearly three years. Based out of Point Judith, RI and New Bedford, MA, I worked aboard commercial fishing boats… everything from tiny day trawlers to 48-hour gillnetters to multi-day bottom trawlers to longliners and factory ships that froze and boxed squid at sea. I’d spend anywhere from a few hours to 14 days on a trip, collecting safety, gear, economic, catch and bycatch information for the databases at NMFS.
The author (awkwardly) poses near the (smelly) baleen of a stranded fin whale taken in for necropsy at a lab in Woods Hole, MA. Photo by Maureen Lynch. It was sometimes an idyllic job: I remember watching hundreds of distant, colorful explosions reflecting off glass-calm water– 4th of July fireworks that seemed to span the entire coast of Maine – from a purse seine boat whose herring catch was under siege by a family of seals. And, at times it was very rough. I did this job year-round, in challenging weather conditions: I often felt like a pinball while attempting to walk through galley halls in 15, 20, and even 30 foot seas; I also frequently bore the brunt of unlatched falling items. I was even working aboard a 70-foot scallop vessel when it took on water and sank in the middle of the ocean. Steaming back home from a trip and under the watchful eye of many curious captains, I transferred data from my fish scale-covered deck notebook into hundreds of pages of hand-coded logs that were subsequently entered into a giant database back at headquarters by editors at the North East Fisheries Science Center. The data was then extrapolated by NMFS to determine the economic viability of fisheries, evaluate the success of management plans, and map stock assessments for the various fisheries under their purview. Although in some cases, confidential information about fishing boats is already withheld, the proposed NOAA rule would further disassociate the catch data from the boat—where and when a ship caught fish, how many of which kinds, and what kind of gear it used—allowing the fishermen to keep their trade secrets and help protect what fishermen see as confidential business information. While these changes will likely benefit strained NMFS/fishermen relations, it will also make it more difficult for non-government scientists and other interested parties who monitor the sustainability of fisheries to analyze data from the boats, thus inhibiting the best-available science for management. Larry Crowder, Science Director of the Center for Ocean Solutions and an ecologist at Stanford told Science in the article, “In most cases our only reliable peek at what’s going on in fisheries is the observer data.” Furthermore, according to some, limiting this information could undermine public trust in NMFS. In the beginning of my tenure as a fisheries observer, it was easy to think that I had a better vantage on the fishery’s big-picture than the fishermen. But, fishermen are the ones that make a business of reading the sea. They know which fish live on what substrate, during which tidal cycle, and during which season. Their trade secrets to efficient fishing include gear tweaks, a little bit of superstition, and the coordinates to their favorite fishing grounds. In fact, when I was abandoning the sinking ship, the only thing that made it into the life raft besides the crew were computers from the wheelhouse, covered in black garbage bags. Never mind the tens of thousands of dollars of catch in the hold, the crew couldn’t bear to leave their coordinates behind. This idea of trade secrets is at the heart of what makes the proposed changes so controversial. The changes specify that the permit holders themselves (the boat and business owners in the fishery) will need to be the ones to provide access to any information more detailed than what NMFS will make publicly available. This is tantamount to walking into your favorite restaurant and asking for the recipe to your favorite dish. While some may offer it up, you are more likely to get an incomplete answer, or to be completely rebuffed. According to Science, NOAA insists that it can still give out information that is “useful and detailed” by aggregating to keep it anonymous (though it doesn’t say how this will be achieved); Crowder insists fisheries data is far less useful when aggregated. As is the case with many questions at the science/policy interface, there’s no easy answer. Public comments closed October 21, so only time will tell if these changes are implemented and the ensuing impacts. What do you think about the proposed changes and what this means for fishermen, scientists, and our fisheries? Meghan Miner worked at COMPASS from 2012-2014. This post was transferred from its original location at www.compassonline.org to www.COMPASSscicomm.org in 2017.