Five Questions With: Kevin Stokesbury

KEVIN STOKESBURY, a professor of fisheries oceanography at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth’s School for Marine Science & Technology, was recently chosen for a service award from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea. / COURTESY KEVIN STOKESBURY/KASEY STOKESBURY

Kevin Stokesbury, professor of fisheries oceanography at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth’s School for Marine Science & Technology, was chosen for a service award from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea last month. The council, in Denmark, recognized the Stokesbury for his work in restoring scallop stocks in the region. He served as chair of the ICES Scallop Assessment Working Group for five years.

PBN: Where are we in terms of scallop stocks in New England now as opposed to say, 10 and 20 years ago?

STOKESBURY: The scallop stocks of New England are a fisheries success story. For 2018, the stock is estimated at 482 million pounds … with a projected harvest of about 63 million pounds. For the last 10 years the average landings were 50 million pounds valued at $460 million; for the last 20 years the average landings were 46 million pounds valued at $345 million; and from 1970 to 1996 the average landings were 20 million pounds valued at $81 million, based on National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data.

This success is the result of nature providing the right conditions for the scallops to produce large numbers of offspring; scientists and the fishing industry working together to develop new ways to document the number of scallops – their distribution, size and biomass – and agencies being open to new ideas on rotational management and flexible enough to act on the new scientific data.

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The results have been a sustainable fishery with reduced environmental impact and economic prosperity.

PBN: One of the things you have been credited with is partnering with fishermen, getting their buy-in to gather information to manage scallop stocks. How would you describe that process?

STOKESBURY: The fishing industry originally approached [UMass Dartmouth professor Brian] Rothschild for help determining the abundance of scallops within the closed areas of Georges Bank. Rothschild had the ability to bring all the different agencies, academics and fishing groups together. The first cooperative dredge survey had already been completed when I came onboard in 1998.

I came up with a drop-camera survey that removed some of the scientific uncertainty and provided accurate estimates of the scallop abundance within those closed areas. This provided the scientific evidence needed to support limited harvesting of these closed areas resulting in financial relief ($55 million) to the struggling fishery and demonstrating the possibilities of rotational management. Right from the start, fishermen were involved on all levels of our survey’s development; it was designed to be used from fishing vessels.

We have a Fishermen’s Steering Committee that meets regularly to discuss issues facing the industry and the resource, and how science can help address these questions. The scallop industry also set aside a portion of their quota, which the National Marine Fisheries Service now distributes through the Research Set-Aside program. … The scallop industry has been the driving force for the cooperative scientific research that supports their fishery.

PBN: About a decade ago, former Mass. Rep. Barney Frank said, “Kevin Stokesbury’s work shows that it is possible to support a thriving fishery in an environmentally responsible way.” Did you always know that the two things didn’t need to be mutually exclusive?

STOKESBURY: Yes. No fishery wants to harvest its resource down to nothing. I’m not sure why this idea has never taken hold publicly. The prosperity associated with sustainability far exceeds the short-term profit from depletion of a resource. Usually what is missing is the in-depth understanding of the resource’s dynamics, the changing environment and the way the fishery interacts with both on spatial scales relative to the animal. … This can be achieved through improved research.

PBN: I understand you are studying wind-turbine development’s effects on the marine environment. What do we know so far?

STOKESBURY: We know that things are going to change. The proposed wind farms along the Atlantic Coast are huge, the largest in the world. The sea floor in these areas is quite homogenous, except for Cox’s Ledge, and they support a marine ecosystem based on that sea floor and the structure of the water currents over them. Developing the wind farms will add hard structures (hundreds of small islands) throughout these areas. This will change the environment, structure and the associated flora and fauna of the area.

This will happen on scales of the individual turbine, the wind-farm field and the entire Eastern seaboard. It will affect the fisheries; some will be able to harvest within the wind farms [and] some will not, [but] all will have to navigate through or around them. Some wind farms are beginning to monitor the marine environment and the animals associated with them, but it seems to be on the state level or finer spatial scale. There is no overall scientific framework to coordinate the different scientific research or push for more understanding.

Right now, it seems to be a debate between doing the best science versus doing enough to check off a box for an environmental-impact assessment. Everyone wants the development of sustainable energy, but you do not simply want to replace one form of sustainable energy harvest (fisheries) with another (wind). Rather, you want both to exist, reducing our dependency on nonrenewable resources.

PBN: With all your underwater research, teachings and innovation, I thought it would be ironic if you were unable to swim. Is this the case?

STOKESBURY: Ha ha! No. I love to swim. … I started snorkeling when I was about 6 years old in the Bay of Fundy and scuba diving when I was 17. Most of my early work was scientific diving – examining lobsters, scallops and seaweeds. It was that work that led me to developing the drop-camera survey.

Susan Shalhoub is a PBN contributing writer.