New tool helps in deciphering a multitude of dataThe task is daunting.

Make sense of the complex interaction between coastal economies, communities, the fishing industry and ocean ecosystems.

Be sure to factor in species characteristics, habitats and catch rates, fishing infrastructure such as boats, processing plants and fuel docks, and state and federal regulations.

Try to imagine the result of a dozen children finger painting on one canvas.

But a West Coast sustainable fishing group has developed a sophisticated toolThe Groundfish Fleet Restructuring project is an attempt to examine how reduction can be accomplished and what impacts on coastal communities might be. that helps make this complicated fisheries information easier to understand and interpret, through graphics and maps.

In collaboration with Portland-based conservation economy group Ecotrust, the Pacific Marine Conservation Council created a Geographic Information System to interpret data about the groundfish fishery.

The GIS is part of a larger Groundfish Fleet Restructuring Information and Analysis project, which seeks to make the beleaguered fishery sustainable in the future.

The West Coast groundfish fishery has been in decline for more than a decade. Between 1991 and 2001, the commercial groundfish harvest in Oregon fell 61 percent. The National

Marine Fisheries Service declared eight species "overfished" and the Secretary of Commerce declared the fishery a disaster in January 2000.

Fishermen dispute fisheries scientists' assertions that stocks are declining. They say they're seeing plenty of fish in the sea, but regulations based on incomplete data keep them from harvesting. Last summer, the largest area closure was imposed on the groundfish fishery. Virtually all of the Pacific Shelf was closed to fishing.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council, the federal body that manages West Coast fisheries, adopted a strategic plan in 2000 that called for a 50 percent reduction in fishing capacity.

"There was no blueprint for how this would happen," said Peter Huhtala, PMCC's executive director. Huhtala gave a presentation Thursday at the Astoria-Warrenton Area Chamber of Commerce fisheries forum.

The Groundfish Fleet Restructuring project is an attempt to examine how the reduction can be accomplished and what the impacts on coastal communities might be.

"We need a port-by-port, boat-by-boat survey of what (fishing) effort exists on the coast and what that means to coastal communities, their economies and social structure," Huhtala said.

PMCC collected a "humongous" relational database, collecting publicly available fishing information from 1987 to 2000. That database was plugged into a GIS computer program.

"The idea was then to run some different scenarios of how the fleet might be restructured" and what the resulting economic, social and environmental impacts would look like, Huhtala said. "We can use modern tools to translate it (in a) graphical way."

The tool cost more than $200,000, and was funded by both private and government sources. On March 1, PMCC will turn the GIS tool over to the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission, an interstate commission dedicated to resolving fishery issues. Anyone will be able to use the tool. Huhtala said this was to ensure that it is open and available, and "not tainted with any agenda."

Huhtala said fleet-restructuring scenarios similar to the buy-back program that was passed by Congress last week have been run through the GIS tool. The buy-back program provides $50 million in government-secured loans to buy trawl fishing permits and boats, allowing some fishers to leave the industry.

He said the GIS tool found that removing fishing effort would result in a short-term economic loss to communities while the industry adjusts, but that overall "those remaining (in the fishery) will catch the same amount of fish."

Fishermen who listened to Huhtala's presentation were unimpressed.

Tom Morrison, a Warrenton commercial trawl fisherman, said environmental groups like Ecotrust are responsible for lawsuits that prompt federal agencies to make overly-conservative management decisions.

Furthermore, he said he believes the data used in computer models that fisheries managers use to justify severe fishing restrictions are flawed, incomplete or out of date.

Rather than trying to better interpret bad data, he would like to see groups like PMCC join fishermen in arguing against reductions in fishing quotas.

"If they keep going the way they're going, it's gonna be a moot point because the fishery's going to shut down," Morrison said.

Huhtala admits the GIS is not without flaws. Like most computer models, complex algorithms are used to fill in gaps in the INFO.BOXOn the Web: www.pmcc.org and www.ecotrust.org/programs/gfr.html

raw data. But the tool is useful because it helps communities and fisheries managers understand the impacts of their decisions.

"There needs to be serious, educated planning to ensure the viability of fishing communities," he said.

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