Combining Scientific and Fisher’s Knowledge to Identify Possible Groundfish Essential Fish Habitats
Melanie Bergmann, Hilmar Hinz, Robert E. Blyth, Michael J. Kaiser, Stuart I. Rogers, and Mike J. Armstrong
Abstract. Fishers have often complained that standard United Kingdom groundfish survey data do not adequately reflect the grounds targeted by commercial fishers, and hence, scientists tend to make overcautious estimates of fish abundance. Such criticisms are of particular importance if we are to make a creditable attempt to classify potential essential fish habitat (EFH) using existing data from groundfish surveys. Nevertheless, these data sets provide a powerful tool to examine temporal abundance of fish on a large spatial scale. Here, we report a questionnaire-type survey of fishers (2001–2002) that invited them to plot the location of grounds of key importance in the Irish Sea and to comment on key habitat features that might constitute EFH for Atlantic cod Gadus morhua, haddock Melanogrammus aeglefinus, and European whiting Merlangius merlangus. Plotted grounds were cross-checked using records of vessel sightings by fishery protection aircraft (1985–1999). A comparison of the areas of seabed highlighted by fishers and the observations made on groundfish surveys were broadly compatible for all three species of gadoids examined. Both methods indicated important grounds for cod and European whiting off northern Wales, the Ribble estuary, Solway Firth, north of Dublin, and Belfast Lough. The majority of vessel sightings by aircraft did not match the areas plotted by fishers. However, fishing restrictions, adverse weather conditions, and seasonal variation of fish stocks may have forced fishers to operate outside their favored areas on the (few) occasions that they had been recorded by aircraft. Fishers provided biological observations that were consistent among several independent sources (e.g., the occurrence of haddock over brittle star [ophiuroid] beds). We conclude that fishers’ knowledge is a useful supplement to existing data sets that can better focus more detailed EFH studies.