Skills shortage forecast for stock assessments

If Australia is to maintain its leading edge in fisheries stock assessment and management, it will have to attract more young scientists and encourage a greater level of collaboration

Illustration: Sonia Kretschmar 

By Bianca Nogrady

You can’t manage what you can’t measure is a truism that has particular relevance in fisheries.

Stock assessments aim to provide fisheries managers with the best possible scientific information in order to calculate the volume of fish that can be harvested without depleting the stock for the following year’s catch and into the future.

Collecting and analysing biological and statistical information to determine the effects of fishing on fish populations and to predict their future condition is an essential component of sustainable management.

Australia has been home to some of the world’s top fisheries assessment scientists who, for decades, have made the country’s stock assessments the envy of much of the rest of the world.

But times are changing. The new report Stock Assessment Integration: a review, funded by the FRDC, has taken a long, hard look at the state of Australia’s fisheries stock assessments and sounded a note of caution about the future.

The report’s authors found that, at times, Australian stock assessment work was hampered by an isolationist approach that has stymied international collaboration and the sharing of expertise. This has also limited stock assessment scientists from taking advantage of new technologies that could make stock assessments faster, cheaper and more accessible.

One of the big issues is a lack of time and resources to support collaboration. And there’s a ticking clock: a significant proportion of Australia’s stock assessment experts are approaching retirement and it’s proving hard to attract new recruits.

“The modelling world has changed,” says Cathy Dichmont, lead author of the report and an internationally recognised expert in stock assessment modelling. A former senior CSIRO scientist, she now has her own consultancy.

“The kinds of models that are out there – not just assessment models but statistical and mathematical model-building tools – have grown enormously,” she says. “In other parts of the world they’re adopting these technologies very quickly, but adoption is patchy in Australia.”

In contrast, stock assessment experts in the US and the European Union are collaborating more often and taking advantage of generic packages as demands for stock assessments increase.

The report was initiated because of concerns that a lack of national and international collaboration in fisheries stock assessments was leading to unnecessary duplication, with each jurisdiction often acting independently and effectively ‘reinventing the wheel’.

“We wanted to know why Australian stock assessments were happening in smaller teams, doing bespoke models and having very little time to talk to each other, and why the US and EU had gone in the opposite direction,” Cathy Dichmont says.

“Although the use of home-grown tools is not in itself an issue, it does not always allow for synergies and more cost-effective practices.”

Are Australia’s fisheries so unique that we need bespoke fisheries assessments? It turns out that the answer to that question is “not really”.

The report’s authors considered 76 model-based stock assessments for Australian commercial species ranging from rock lobsters to prawns to finned fish. These stocks represent about a third of Australia’s commercial harvest.

They concluded that 58 of these stock assessments could have just as easily been done using one of the many freely available stock assessment packages used in the US or New Zealand as with the customised Australian modelling packages that had been used.

International benefits

Cathy Dichmont 

International collaboration on fisheries stock assessments could have mutual benefits. For one thing, countries such as the US have a substantially larger (and growing) budget for fisheries.

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) – under whose auspices the US fisheries sector falls – has benefited from two consecutive budgetary windfalls specifically aimed at stock assessments. As a result, the US has a host of generic stock assessment packages that are very well supported and peer reviewed. The scientists who develop these packages are also supported to deliver courses on their use around the country and dedicated time to keep developing the package.

In Australia, funding for fisheries has been stagnant at best, which means innovation and sharing has become harder as the workload has increased. There have been few opportunities to share skills and know-how.

“Australia has some of the world’s top scientists who are well positioned to invest in the development and maintenance of packages as a core component of stock assessment science,” Cathy Dichmont says. “What they need is support to enable this.”

The new report proposes some ways to improve collaboration. For example, making training, manuals and example datasets for generic stock assessment packages more accessible may make it easier for time- and resource-stretched scientists to get to grips with a new system.

It also suggests Australia could do more to share its own packages internationally, developing models into something more generic that other people could use. Cathy Dichmont says Australia has much to offer the rest of the world in stock assessment expertise, particularly when it comes to length-based models for hard-to-age species such as lobster and abalone.

“We have advanced, well-written, length-based models and if we turn these into a generic model, there is a world of crab and lobster modellers out there who would just love to have our package, because we have some of the best people on the job.”

Open access

One challenge is how to make these stock assessment models accessible to everyone. The executive director of the FRDC, Patrick Hone, envisages a global, open-source, open-access fisheries stock assessment toolkit.

“For fisheries of the world, we need a collection of stock assessment models, we need to put them all into the cloud, they need to be open source so other people can contribute to their ongoing development,” Patrick Hone says. “Then people will be able to go onto that cloud, take that stock assessment model and even get access to our data and re-run the model any way they like.”

It would mean greater transparency and accountability for fisheries because the stock assessment data would be there for all to see.

But Patrick Hone admits that not everyone in the stock assessment community is entirely happy with the notion. There are concerns that making these complex models available to everyone could lead to their accidental – or deliberate – misuse, which could have devastating consequences for the management of those fisheries.

He says there is also likely to be resistance from parts of the industry where stock assessments form an important part of the business model. Providing these stock assessment models in an open-source, cloud-based manner could threaten revenue streams.

The need for such an accessible resource became starkly apparent to Cathy Dichmont when the NOAA took its own stock assessment toolbox offline.

“Many packages were available from the toolbox but they hadn’t been aware that people were using it internationally until I spoke to them,” she says.

Shared knowledge

The sector is also crying out for forums – either online or offline – to enable scientists to collaborate and share methods more easily and more regularly. In the US, the annual American Fisheries Society conference is enormous and brings together most of the industry. Australia has the Australian Society for Fish Biology Conference.

But the success of a separate one-off international event a few years ago focused entirely on stock assessments showed there was a need for more dedicated meetings, Cathy Dichmont says.

Another factor that prompted the stock assessment review project is what Patrick Hone describes as “succession planning”.

“There’s been an amazing group of scientists who led the quantitative revolution through the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, who have built a whole lot of models that are now the foundation of almost all of our high-value and advanced country stock assessments,” he says.

Many of these people are now close to retirement, and there are not nearly enough young scientists to take their place. Bright young scientists coming up through the ranks are needed to work directly with these experts.

While countries such as the US and South Africa have dedicated fisheries stock assessment courses, Australia has comparatively few. And a career as a stockassessment scientist is not necessarily an attractive option for young scientists.

FRDC Research Code: 2014-039

More information

Cathy Dichmont, 0419 950 076, cathydichmont@gmail.com