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Our Fishing Heritage
Chapter 19. Fishery Research

We were sailing along the south coast of the island of Flores in a typical calm tropical day. Dolphins occasionally broke the surface and would playfully race the ship for a while. Flying fish disturbed by our approach, would skim over the surface or glide along the swells for surprising distances. When speed was reduced the crew would throw trolling lines over the stern and these would soon hook skipjack, barracuda and rainbow runner, - all excellent table fish which we enjoyed. In the bridge we kept the echo-sounder and sonar going constantly, and these produced reams and reams of paper recordings which were stored for later analysis. The sonar sound speaker also picked up echoes of the communications between whales and between schools of killer whales. The UN research ship Lemuru had a crew of three expatriate officers, six national biologists and navigators, and some eight others, - deckhands, cooks, and greasers. To my surprise and pleasure, I had been asked to command the vessel while the regular captain went on leave.

On the day in question, the mate came below to inform me that the radar had detected an island ahead where none appeared on the nautical chart. The area had a sea bed full of sand peaks and submarine mounts which seemed to vary in height from time to time. But a new island was something we were not expecting. As we approached it was apparent that the unexpected island was ‘smoking’ – exuding steam and sulphurous vapour. It was obviously the result of a sub-marine volcanic emission or minor earthquake.

We hove to, down-wind of the little island, and launched the ship’s skiff that was normally used for purse seining operations. Several of us climbed in and approached the new peak which smelled strongly of sulphur. The water around was boiling and agitated. We got close enough to pick up a few hot rocks which were falling as the island cooled and settled. We took a number of photographs and recorded the isle’s latitude and longitude, for later reporting to the Indonesian maritime authorities.

A more amazing aspect to me, of the volcanic rock that came up from the depths to protrude above the ocean, was its later disappearance. I returned to Flores with two other UN officers, two years after its emergence, and it was gone. The sea bed where the rocky isle had stood was now 70 metres deep and there was no indication of any rocks below.

Exploration and adventure had filled the minds of myself and boyhood companions and school chums. The post-WW2 era was one of great progress and many breakthroughs in science, flight, discoveries, and feats of courage and endurance. British and American jets broke the ‘sound barrier’ – the speed at which sound travels through the atmosphere; mountaineers climbed the highest peak in the world; Professor Piccard was descending to sea depths never before seen by man, in his submersible vehicle the Trieste, and a French former Naval commander, Jacques-Yves Cousteau, was developing aqua-lung technology and under-water cameras, as he explored the oceans in the yacht Calypso; - all while I was still at school.

One remarkable sea voyage that captured our imaginations, was that of the Kon Tiki, - the raft of bamboo logs that Thor Heyedral and his team of five young men crossed the Pacific ocean in, from Peru to Raroia in the Tuamotu islands, a journey of 4,300 miles which was made in 101 days in 1947. We were fascinated by that expedition, and cared little whether it proved a historical point or not. The men who embarked on that dangerous voyage were our heroes. Little did I think then that I would one day work for one of the Kon Tiki explorers, - Herman Watzinger, after he became Assistant Director General for Fisheries in FAO.

I became an avid reader of the accounts of explorers, - first in school and more as I travelled myself. Hakluyt’s voyages, the north-west passage explorers, Frobisher, Gilbert, Hudson, Bering, and others, the Endeavour and Resolution logs of Captain James Cook, and the journals of the early adventurers in Africa, - Mungo Park and David Livingstone, were to feed my appetite further. Twentieth century explorers like Scott, Amundsen, and Shackleton, also inspired my interest. Along with these books, I loved to peruse the maps of foreign lands and distant seas, in good atlases, and in the many beautifully illustrated travel accounts in the National Geographic magazine.

I wrote a poem of sea discovery for my English class in school, at the age of 14, using a sonnet rhyme scheme.

I Found It by the Sea

I found it by the sea one morn,
All worn and bleached and soaked in brine, -
A steering wheel, lost in a storm
From off some barque transporting
Wine and spices from oriental shores,
Or off some gallant man-o’-war
That to the depths didst one condemn
The Barbary F’luccas from afar,
Or off some stately clipper ship,
That from Shanghai to London plies no more.

What stories that wheel could have sung
If only it was given a tongue !

Fishery research voyages naturally, were also of much interest, though I never thought for a minute that one day I would command such a vessel myself. As the incident above describes, it happened in Indonesia during the 1970’s when the UN research ship Captain went on home leave to Iceland, that I was asked to serve in that capacity for 3 months. I joined the ship in Cilacap, south Java, and was to take it to Bali, then through the Java Sea to Sumatra and Sunda Strait, then west again to Madura, Bali, Lombok, Kimodo (the dragon island), Flores, and West Timor. All in all it was a fascinating assignment, made all the more enjoyable by the company of a Spanish Marine engineer who became a lifelong friend.

Generally speaking Scots fishermen regarded marine biologists and researchers rather unkindly. Most fishermen saw little useful information produced by the fishery scientists, and so they concluded that much of their work was too concerned with the minutae of marine life to be of much practical help. But exposure to some of the very practical researchers from the Marine Laboratory in Aberdeen began to change that view. One of these was Alistair Corrigal who made some trips on my father’s boat to assess the performance of a net my Dad rigged for fishing on rough stony or rocky bottom. Questioned by my father about the seemingly limited output of the research fleet, Alistair replied, “Jimmy, you have to remember that we Scottish fishery scientists have only 3 research boats. You fishermen have thousands ! We cannot possibly hope to compete with you on day-to-day knowledge of grounds and of fish movements. But we are able to conduct bits of research that tet fishermen would not have the time or equipment to undertake.” We thought that was a fair assessment of the different roles and potential of investigations by commercial fishers and government scientists.

I came to know and respect some fine researchers who worked for the United Nations, for governments, universities, or overseas aid programmes. They were men like Jim Soulsby who was my chief fisheries officer in Northern Rhodesia (Zambia), Professor Saul Saila, a very fine colleague in Rhode Island, Bill Dickson of FAO, James Muir of Stirling University, and Jim Scullion who served in with me in Nigeria and Turkmenistan. Perhaps the scientist I was closest to was Dr Gary Bernacsek of Canada who worked with me in FAO Rome, in Sierra Leone, in Sri Lanka, and in Cambodia. I had been drawn to his early work in Africa by a paper he had written that assessed the continent’s fish resources as well as the condition and needs of its small scale fishers, - a subject close to my heart. We were to work together in 2003 / 2004, on the Cambodian fishery reforms introduced by Prime Minister Hun Sen, and to plan the project I later managed, which empowered and organised 175 communities around the great lake of Tonle Sap. Tragically, Gary was not to see the fruits of his labour. He died suddenly in July 2006, in Bangkok, following a short but severe tropical illness that had struck him in Phnom Penh just as he was starting an assignment with the Mekong River Commission. Gary was a gifted artist and musician. One of the memories of him I treasure, is of a poem about nature that he wrote, and sent to me before he died.

O Nature!
How foolish you have been,
What a silly thing you have done,
Crowning eons of work and experiment
With a creation that
Can now destroy you.

But I can see your
Foolishness and patience
May be at an end.
Your attempts at self preservation
Have been too feeble
You must take more seriously
The task of ensuring your own survival.

Along with my admiration for good scientists, was an interest in all and any who exhibited a genuine spirit of enquiry which I believe to be the key to effective research. We need to have a child-like curiosity, an open mind, and a willingness to be surprised. All of the researchers I mentioned above had that quality. However, I must admit that I served alongside some well educated scientists in academic institutions and research projects, who appeared to be devoid of any imagination or creative thought. Some of them seemed to be incapable of ever challenging any of the ideas or concepts they received as a student. And there was at least one who failed to produce a report after 2 years work, being high on narcotic drugs most of the time. But it was that lack of an enquiring mind or resourceful spirit that disappointed me most in young developing country researchers I tried to encourage.

It was tiresome to encounter these would-be scientists who had been so focused on modern western research methods when attending college, that they simply could not conceive of doing any useful work without the help of the most sophisticated and expensive equipment. They would be based at a port or research station located by a tropical sea or lake, with an incredible range of marine life on their doorstep, crying out for someone to start to observe and record and interpret, their complex life patterns, feeding, breeding, and migratory ways.

But no; - when I would ask if they were doing any work of scientific value, they would respond, “No, we are not able to do that. We have no research boat, no echo-sounders, no sonars, no computer or integrator”. And so they sat in their offices and gazed out of the windows, and failed completely to apply their higher education in simple, practical ways. It was with some exasperation I would try to remind them that the greatest marine scientific expeditions of all time, - the voyages of the Beagle, and the Discovery, and the Resolution, and many other similar ventures up to the first part of the 20th century, - were made without any electronic equipment, or computer, or integrator, or other expensive toys of the modern age. I would urge them to examine and sample the catches of the local fishermen, - to go to sea with them and find out precisely how they caught fish, - to ask them what they understood about the lives of fishes, and to get a canoe themselves, and begin to do their own sampling and observations in the inshore waters. But no, - that sounded too simplistic and not scientific enough for them.

I would remind them of a simple engineer in Fleetwood, England, who took an amateur interest in the fish of the Irish Sea and who read what he could and started to perform his own experiments. He attended a conference of top fishery scientists who long believed that the Morecambe Bay sardine was a special local species, unconnected to other fish. He stood up at the meeting and said that these sardines were just young herring. The learned scientists shouted him down and demanded to know how he as a layman dare make such a claim. He replied that yes, he was not a biologist, and yes, he had not attended university, but he had observed and examined the fish for some years. Then he caught some live samples and put them in a tank till they grew to maturity. When they had grown to full size it was seen they were indeed herring as he had suspected. Faced with proof like that the academic community grudgingly conceded. But none of them had thought of conducting that simple experiment.

Apart from my time in command of the research vessel, I was also involved in the mapping of the sea bed by satellite imagery. We used data produced from orbiting satellites launched to collect information on forest coverage, vegetation, desert areas, and water resources. The readings from coastal areas was recorded in the form of coloured bands or areas detected under the sea. By ground-truthing the imagery, we were able to interpret similar maps for islands and remote coasts where the data would be helpful to fishers and scientists alike. So we sent a team to the locations mapped, which included the Maldive islands, and got them to identify the type of sea bed that corresponded to the colour variations in the satellite images. The imagery was effective only in shallow water, up to 20 or 30 metres. Beyond that it was cheaper and more accurate to use a low-frequency paper recording echo-sounder.

Since then I have read some foolish statements by persons who obviously do not know the science and who are ignorant of the impact of fishing gear on the sea bed. One such writer to the press claimed that “the only man-made thing visible from outer space are the deep ruts and tracks on the sea-bed made by otter trawlers.” Well, for a start, trawl nets do not leave a rut or track on the bottom, and also there is as yet no space imagery that can indicate the nature of the sea bed beyond 50 metres depth. That is not to say there are no problems with trawling gear per se, but they relate to the impact on stocks when large nets are towed by fleets of powerful deep sea vessels, and not to any damage they cause to the bottom. The exception would be the types of gear that are pulled over coral beds, but these are mostly Japanese or Filipino surround nets rather than trawls which would torn by the coral.

In addition to skippering a research ship, I was assigned by FAO and IOC, the International Ocean Commission (part of UNESCO), to assist in the compilation of a manual on the design and operation of fishery research ships, in collaboration with ICOD, a Canadian organisation that was based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Among the team of contributors and editors were marine and fishery scientists from Woods Hole Oceanographic Station, USA, and research fleet managers from Canada, UK, USA, and the United Nations. That experience, and my occasional visits to the latest and largest of the research ships that traverse our oceans to increase man’s understanding of the marine environment, leaves me with two fundamental conclusions : one is of the immense power and sophistication of the most modern equipment available for such research today; the second conclusion is that such modern ships are far too expensive for most countries, and much too sophisticated to be of practical benefit, since they require a battery of shore laboratories and teams of highly trained technicians to process all of the data produced. For the most part I would advise poorer countries to stick to the boats and the tools they have, but at the same time, to give their would-be researchers a thorough training in simple methods of practical research.

To provide some light relief for readers, I would like to close this chapter with a few amusing anecdotes about fishery science and fishery researchers. Let me start with something I was told by a UN officer who had worked in a large foreign country that had a big marine research establishment, and published huge tomes of information and statistics every year. The officer lifted one of the volumes from the shelf and said, “Do you know what any person who knows the real value and reliability of this publication will do with it, once he receives a copy ?” With that he tossed the book into a waste paper basket. “David”, he said,” their so-called research boat never left the pier. The fish samples they say they caught were simply lifted out of the catches of local fishermen. The whole publication is worthless !”

Then let me mention a meeting in FAO Rome between the EU Parliamentarians and the Fisheries Department, convened to give the MEPs an opportunity to be briefed on the state of the world’s fish stocks. The Head of Fishery operations, Dr Kojima of Japan, asked the Head of Fishery Research, Dr Garcia of France, and myself, to meet the delegation. We sat in the meeting room for around 2 hours waiting for the group to arrive. They had spent the first part of their time with the World Food Program which was in the same building, then had been taken to lunch by that body. They had been well wined and dined by the WFP by the time they arrived for the fishery briefing. After an exchange of pleasantries, and a welcome by our Operations Chief, we were about to start, but the MEP leader announced that most of the party would have to leave to catch their plane back to Strasbourg. With that, some 24 of the 27 who came, got up and left, leaving us somewhat bemused.

Once they had gone we resumed the dialogue with the remaining three, two UK MEPs and the wife of one who agreed to speak on their behalf. The spokesperson asked how we should proceed. Dr Kojima suggested we begin with their questions. “What questions ?” the MEP spokesman responded. “The questions in your e-mail” said Dr K. “What e-mail ? asked the MEP. Dr K. produced the document we had been sent but which obviously the delegates had neither seen nor read. The first question related to the stocks of fish around the Falkland Isles (or Malvinas). Dr Garcia gave a summary of the fish in that part of the south Atlantic. Among other species, he mentioned squid. “Squid” ? interrupted the second MEP. “What do they taste like” ? – “I’ve never eaten them”. “Oh, they are good, - you should try them some time” said Dr G. From then on the conversation proceeded to deteriorate, if that was possible. We had a lecture about one of the MEPs experiences as a young soldier being barracked near a fish meal plant and finding its fumes rather unpleasant. He wanted to know if the United Nations had solved that problem yet. My respect for the European Parliament took a bit of a knock that day, but Dr Garcia was more philosophical. “We have MPs like that in my own country too” he sighed.

A really fine and practical fishery researcher who worked many years for FAO and for the UK and Norwegian governments, as well as the private sector, was Bill Dickson. He had started out working for the Marine Laboratory in Aberdeen, and at that time had some strong leftist sympathies. I well recall reading a case reported in the Aberdeen Press and Journal just after the Cuban missile crisis. It concerned a young employee of the laboratory who was fined for painting Hands off Cuba, on a wall in the city. Bill complained that the case was political victimisation and a denial of free speech. The judge or sheriff, in response told him, “No, Mr Dickson, you are not being victimised. You are free to paint “Hands off Cuba” on a wall if you wish,- provided it is your wall. You are not free to paint it on someone else’s wall.”

I later came to know Bill very well, and to appreciate his finer points. He was a good singer, and when with a group would often start them singing, whether in a bus or a restaurant. I recall several such sing-songs, including one inside the Arctic circle at a restaurant in Murmansk, that continued till very late in the evening. But I must share a funny tale about Bill when he was on one of the Scottish research ships with Alastair Corrigal.

The ship had run out of formaldehyde used to preserve species in, and had called into Stornoway in the Hebrides for a fresh supply. Alastair washed and shaved and put on a shirt and tie before going into the town to find a pharmacist who might sell the chemical. As he was leaving the boat, Bill announced cheerfully that he would accompany him. Now Bill was short of stature and had elfin features. At sea he just wore an old jersey, dungarees and sea boots. Making no attempt to change his attire, he followed Alastair up the road. At the pharmacy they were made most welcome and the chemist plied Alastair with questions about the work of the research ship. All this time he ignored Bill standing there. Finally as they finished and the chemical was handed over, he turned to Bill, looked down at him, and in a condescending voice said, “And what do you do on the boat, laddie ? Are you the cookie”. “No,” responded Bill in his high pitched voice, “I’m a scientist too”! The pharmacist might have been surprised to learn that the fellow he mistook for the ‘cookie’ went to become an internationally respected marine fisheries scientist, and writer. He served on global research ships, and in FAO HQ in Rome. He also worked with Norwegian and Polish fishery research centres.

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