Partnerships: NOAA and St. Thomas Fishing Community Study Impacts of Marine Debris

By Randy Clark
Center for Coastal Monitoring and Assessment (CCMA)
National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS)

Here at NCCOS, much of our research is prompted by coastal managers and resource users. We aim to provide managers with data on their coastal community in an attempt to help them understand their natural resources. Most of the time, resource management organizations approach us with problems, however, a few years ago, a different group of resource users approached our team: fishermen.

St. Thomas Fishermen Approach NCCOS with Fish Trap Loss Concerns
In 2009, the St. Thomas Fishermen’s Association (STFA) approached NCCOS for assistance in finding their lost traps. Fish traps are commonly used by fishing communities in the U.S. Caribbean to catch resident reef fishes and lobsters.

Fishing trap covered with coral and other Benthic species

Derelict trap that has been colonized by coral.    Photo Credit: NOAA/NCCOS/CCMA/Biogeography Branch

While theft and vandalism are frequent causes of trap loss, weather events can also lead to the losses. The initial goal of this project was to help the fishermen locate lost traps, but the work also highlighted the lack of knowledge about derelict traps and their potential impacts to resources such as fish populations and coral in the region. The latter provided an opportunity for NOAA and the STFA to educate the region about the impacts of this type of marine debris on their fish populations.

Unlikely Partners Join Forces to Research Marine Debris
In order to make this project successful, we needed to build a strong relationship with the St. Thomas fishing community. We spent a lot of our time talking and organizing activities with Dave Olsen, the STFA’s Science Advisor. Through his insights and relationships within the community, NCCOS researchers were able to spend time getting to know some of the fishermen and sharing information about the project. Many of the men we talked to came from a long line of fishermen, and they were concerned that our involvement would hinder their livelihood. As a result of NOAA’s transparency on the goals of the research, many fishermen provided details on how they operated, local species knowledge, and where traps were being consistently lost.  The regional knowledge was crucial to the success of our project design and execution.

In addition to partnering with the STFA, we also worked with the Caribbean Fishery Management Council, NOAA’s Marine Debris Program, the National Park Service-Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument, the University of the Virgin Islands, the U.S. Naval Surface Warfare Center, and NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service.

Project Development

Image of a yellow field containing piles of derelict fishing traps

AUV image of a pile of derelict fishing traps off the coast of St. Thomas.                                                     Photo Credit: NOAA/NCCOS/CCMA/Biogeography Branch

In the developmental stage of the project, NCCOS worked with our partners as a collaborative group to ensure all had equal input. We wanted to make sure that we addressed the concerns of the fishermen by understanding the rate of trap loss, identifying areas of high fishing effort, the potential economic and ecological impacts to fish and habitats from derelict traps, and our ability to use technology to find derelict traps.

We asked fishermen to provide basic information about where they fished and how many traps they typically fish. They also gave our researchers important data related to the location and numbers of traps lost, critical information for the design of our trap surveys. Without this information, we would not have known where to look for traps, or understood the areas of highest concern for the fishermen.

Project Implementation and Study Area

Two men working on fishing traps

Randy Clark prepares fishing traps for simulation. Photo Credit: NOAA/NCCOS/CCMA/Biogeography Branch

The project we developed involved 3 components: 1) collection and synthesis of fishermen data, 2) simulations of derelict traps in two locations to examine mortality, potential trap movement, and rate of deterioration over time, and 3) the use of Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs) equipped with side scan sonar to determine if this technology can be used to detect lost traps within a highly complex reef ecosystem.

A fishing trap covered with colonies of coral and other benthic species

A colonized trap in Flat Clay.                                           Photo Credit: NOAA/NCCOS/CCMA/Biogeography Branch

The study area for this project was primarily the southern waters of St. Thomas and St. John.  We did conduct some trap surveys on the north side of St. Thomas when weather conditions were bad. The experimental trap research was conducted in Perseverance Bay and Flat Cay, St. Thomas by a graduate student from the University of the Virgin Islands.  The mortality experiments took place over 6 months and traps were surveyed every 2 or 3 days.  We also studied colonization of the traps with monthly surveys over a year’s time. Eight areas were surveyed with the AUV.  The field team consisted of scientists from the Naval Surface Warfare Team, NCCOS, and Marine Debris Program researchers. The AUV surveyed about 10 km2 of area over the span of two weeks.

Three men lowering an AUV into the sea

Researchers prepare to release AUV.                                Photo Credit: NOAA/NCCOS/CCMA/Biogeography Branch

Most of the research involved fieldwork but it wasn’t all bad. During one of our dive surveys to gather location, species and conditions data, we witnessed a 6-foot nurse shark attack one of the traps packed full of grunts and snappers at the nearshore seagrass site leaving some nice dents in the trap. We also had a resident spotted eagle ray at an offshore site that would cruise by us most days and a reef shark that would check us out on our diving safety stops.

Project Results and New Discoveries

Fishing trap underwater covered with benthic species

Benthic organisms that have colonized a fishing trap.                                                                                                 Photo Credit: NOAA/NCCOS/CCMA/Biogeography Branch

Most of the work we did on this project was novel. We developed a method for understanding which organisms colonize derelict traps and how fast they do it.  We also used AUVs to search for traps in coral reef ecosystems which has never been done prior to that in the region.  That work allowed us to test new technology and its application to research of shallow habitats.

This work produced information and awareness on an issue that was virtually unheard of in the region. The final report can be found at Survey and Impact Assessment of Derelict Fish Traps( DFTs) in St. Thomas and St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands. We learned that the use of underwater vehicles is efficient in detecting traps on the seafloor. We observed low mortality from our experimental derelict traps, but the impact to natural resources needs more scientific investigation.

Future Work

Diver surveying a derelict fishing trap

Diver surveying a derelict fishing trap.                      Photo Credit: NOAA/NCCOS/CCMA/Biogeography Branch

This report encompasses 2 years of research but there are still questions that remain unanswered such as the extent of this problem and what other parts of the Caribbean are impacted. We believe there are a lot more derelict traps, but we need to conduct more surveys to provide a reliable estimate. We also recommend assessing traps as they are found, some of which became habitat and their removal might cause more harm than good to their new “inhabitants.” We hope that future work on this issue will involve further surveys of lost traps to throughout the Caribbean waters.

During the course of this project, we were reminded of the incredible value traditional and local knowledge provides to a given study of this scale.  We saw the success of what NOAA can bring in the way of science and how when complimented by traditional and local knowledge, the results are that much better.  This project allowed NOAA to partner with the fishermen to answer a common challenge.  We recognize the value of this partnership and encourage other scientists to seriously consider partnering and engaging with this community when studying these types of environmental challenges.

NCCOS and NOAA would like to thank STFA and the fishermen who partnered with us on this project, which was done funded and done in partnership with the NOAA Marine Debris Program.

Man in red shirt, orange life jacket and sunglasses

Randy Clark

NCCOS Blogger Biography: Randy Clark has been a NOAA researcher since 1998 with primary interests in the associations between marine and estuarine fishes and their habitats.  He has conducted research projects on the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of the US, the Gulf of Mexico and the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.  Randy is currently stationed at Stennis Space Center, MS, to focus on Gulf of Mexico research activities.  Randy earned a B.S. in Marine Biology and an M.S. in Wildlife and Fisheries Management from Texas A&M University at Galveston.

This entry was posted in Benthic Mapping, Biogeography Branch, Caribbean, Caribbean Research, Center for Coastal Monitoring and Assessment, Coral, General, National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, NOAA's National Ocean Service, Ocean Field Work, Ocean Research, Science for Coastal Ecosystem Management, St. Thomas Fishermen's Association, Technology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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