Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Fisheries Roundtable: communications

“All I want to do is to be heard. I want a voice,” a commercial fishermen told a panel of speakers from the NOAA Fisheries and NEFMC communications teams. The panel was part of a Fisheries Roundtable discussion at the Hampton Public Library on November 10th, 2011. The Fisheries Roundtable discussion — co-hosted by the Northeast Consortium and N.H. Sea Grant — focused communications within the NOAA Fisheries Northeast Regional Office and the New England Fishery Management Council and with fishermen, providing a forum for fishermen to talk candidly about what might improve communication between the three groups.

Alison McHale, leader of the outreach and communications team for the NOAA Fisheries Service Northeast Regional Office, began by explaining that NOAA’s four communications program areas include outreach (coordinating public meetings, developing outreach material and guidance documents), education, media (news releases and alerts), and internal communication (briefing documents for NOAA, DOC and Congress).

McHale said that NOAA Northeast Regional Office is working on a “Plain Language Campaign” that necessitates simpler language, brevity and an emphasis on visually displayed information for all their documents, including permit holder letters. The campaign is expected to begin in early 2012. NOAA also developed an interactive website called Fish-on-Line that allows fishermen to check their landings from the last six months and review individual data sets. McHale said the site will eventually include more outreach information, operational and technical guidance and data. Some audience members suggested this web site should include an FAQ section or a box for fishermen to ask their questions, but the general reaction included positive feedback about the site. For more information, please visit the web site: https://www.nero.noaa.gov/NMFSlogin/login/login

McHale mentioned that her team was considering use of social media, technology for smartphones and iPads, focusing on web stories rather than traditional press releases and interactive online tools. While some of these plans could be useful to a certain cross-section of the commercial fishing fleet, attendees noted that cell phones do not work out at sea. With the average age of fishermen increasing, attendees felt that developing smartphone apps and social media should not be a priority.

“I don’t care about technology,” stated one commercial fisherman in the audience. “But I want an equal partnership between fishermen and NOAA.” He suggested that each group should function as a board, with a board of fishermen and a board of NOAA staffers that interact with each other. That, he said, would produce more effective change in communication than developing a new smartphone app.

NOAA keeps a hotline open for fishermen to call with any questions they might have about various species or management rules for New England waters. However, the hotline is only open during regular business hours and it often takes a while until fishermen receive the answer they need. One fisherman suggested a 24-hour hotline might be more useful for those in the fishing industry who work unusual hours.

Some fishermen in the audience expressed their frustration with the new management regulations and the technology they are expected to adopt that sometimes does not work properly and thus can cause delays and lost wages.

“The tools you want us to use don’t even work right,” one fisherman said to the NOAA panel speakers. “Fishermen can’t even leave the dock. That’s such a basic problem and you’re not even listening,” he added.

Pat Fiorelli, Public Affairs Officer of The New England Fishery Management Council, discussed ways to create positive change at Council meetings to maximize collaboration and simplify communication. Even a simple change like serving coffee during the breaks on each Council meeting day could encourage Council members and staff to engage meeting attendees, Fiorelli said. Other suggested changes include holding an informal social hour, posting Council member bios online and enhancing their meeting management skills.

It might be worthwhile, one attendee noted, to convene ad hoc meetings or boards based on issues to parse out the variables to ensure the different viewpoints are expressed and heard by the Council. With hundreds of fishermen in the fisheries, a lot of voices can go unheard.

Audience members mentioned the difficulty of keeping track of the numerous acronyms used in the meetings and requested that a concise glossary of acronyms should be made available at Council meetings and online. In addition, all public meetings should be recorded and put online or broadcasted live so people do not have to travel and physically attend the meetings to find out the latest information about fisheries management issues.

As the dialogue transitioned to the role of stock assessment and computer models in establishing fisheries regulations, some attendees noted that there are discrepancies between what fishermen see on the water and what scientists estimate for population changes. It should be a two-way street between the scientists and fishermen, a few audience members said, and NOAA staffers might benefit from spending time on fishing boats to experience the reality of the management rules they create and enforce.

“We had over two hours of honest and constructive dialogue," said Roundtable coordinator Rachel Feeney from the Northeast Consortium. "The Regional Office and Council are making great strides to improve communications, and we were able to exchange a lot of good feedback and ideas,” she added.