How many fish are in the sea? NOAA Fisheries is training the next generation of scientists to address this age-old question. NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center (NWFSC) and the University of Washington (UW) teamed up to train future fishery scientists with a course that allows students to work on applied fisheries science while getting graduate credits to apply towards their degrees.
The intent of this course is to expose students to fishery stock assessment, the scientific tool used to provide estimates of fish stock sizes and the backbone of science-based fisheries management. A stock assessment is a scientific examination of the effects of fishing and other factors to describe the past and current status of a fish stock. A fish stock is a group of fish of the same species that live in the same geographic area and breed when mature. To conduct a stock assessment, scientists collect information on fish abundance, biology, and catch data for fish stocks (populations). These data are then used in statistical population models to create an assessment that provides estimates of fish stock size and status, as well as projections of future trends, all of which help managers determine a sustainable level of fishing.
Students were involved in the entire assessment process. This gave them the opportunity to work with data, develop models and project impacts of alternative management policies, culminating in assessment documents, summaries of which the students presented (and defended) at the June 2015 Pacific Fishery Management Council meeting.
This class benefitted both the students and the NWFSC. The students had the opportunity to gain practical, hands-on experience and explore the field of stock assessment, a possible career path. The NWFSC had an opportunity to train the next generation of NOAA fishery scientists while having talented graduate students enhance existing stock assessments. In addition, working together provided networking opportunities that were beneficial to both.
Co-organizer Professor Andre Punt’s 25 years of experience in stock assessment and fisheries management, along with his prolific publication history, made him the ideal organizer of the three-term yearlong course. NWFSC fishery stock assessment scientists Melissa Haltuch and Owen Hamel taught the course and both felt it was a great success.
“The students come up with on-target, interesting questions that can help improve the stock assessments,” Hamel remarked. Haltuch said, “Their ability to present their findings and diagnose problems with their own data preparations and models has been rewarding to observe.” Haltuch and Hamel also commented that the motivated students as well as the guest lectures by NWFSC scientists, including Ian Taylor and Jim Thorson, helped contribute to the course’s success.
Second year PhD candidate Merrill Rudd, of the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences at UW, was very interested in working as a NOAA Fisheries stock assessment scientist and remarked that the quantitative skills acquired in this course have really helped her. Her current research focuses on data-limited stock assessments for small-scale fisheries, with a partial focus on developing an assessment model for Kenyan coral reef fisheries. She is also working on management implications of misreported catch on fisheries stock assessments.
Regarding the course, Rudd said, “I wanted to take this opportunity to gain tangible experience conducting a stock assessment. It has been eye opening to work through the process of a stock assessment update –from getting the data together [to] processing it into the right format. I can now say I have experience …working with a commercial West Coast species (very different from my dissertation research); and feel like I have actually contributed to the national fisheries assessment and management process.”
Kelli Johnson, of the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences at UW, is working towards her PhD and is focusing on multispecies stock assessments. She is interested in working with developing countries to manage their fisheries. She decided to take the course because she “…wanted to have the experience of a real stock assessment, not just generated data. I also thought it would be a good way to meet people from the (NWFSC) and make personal connections.”
She also reported she gained knowledge about data and errors from this course. “I knew ageing error existed, but did not know it played such a factor in the final results. I know increased data collection is important and I am interested in learning how reduced ageing error can reduce the uncertainty in management reference points.”
Lynn Waterhouse, a PhD candidate studying Quantitative Ecology with an emphasis on Fisheries, participated remotely from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego (UCSD) during the fall term.
“This course has made me feel better prepared to do research, and also to understand research done by others,” said Waterhouse. “Due to this course, I have become aware of the current limitations of data, and feel that I would like to be part of the effort to make improvements for our future.”
The course finished in June with the students’ presentations at the Scientific and Statistical Committee (SSC) at the 230th Session of the Pacific Fisheries Management Council (PFMC) in Spokane, WA. The stock assessments were reviewed and accepted for management advice. NWFSC scientists may teach this course again in the fall of 2016.
NOAA Fisheries supports the continuing education and training of quantitative fisheries scientists and students through its QUEST Program. Click here to learn more about the QUEST.
Learn more about the University of Washington’s School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences here.