Fishery Biology and Stock Assessment Division

The Fishery Biology and Stock Assessment Division conducts fundamental biological and ecological research on fish and crustaceans caught in federally managed fisheries to enable improved understanding of the mechanisms that influence their distribution and abundance. Life history studies on age and growth, reproduction and fecundity, migration and movement, and mortality are conducted to provide estimates of vital rates for stock assessments and ecosystem-based management. Research is focused on tunas, billfishes and other pelagic species; bottomfish; and the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands lobster. Attention is also being directed toward coral reef species.

Spiny lobster (panulirus marginatus) and slipper lobster (Scyllarides squammosus)
Spiny Lobster (Panulirus marginatus) and slipper lobster (Scyllarides squammosus) ready for biological studies

The research involves field surveys using a variety of sampling gears, laboratory studies of biological specimens, and analysis of data from experiments using conventional and electronic tags and other tracking methods. New fishing technologies are developed, tested, and promoted internationally to reduce fisheries bycatch and effects of pelagic longline and other fisheries on populations of sea turtles, seabirds, sharks, and other species caught incidentally. The ecology of exploited stocks and effects of stock levels, harvests, bycatch, and conservation measures on the broader ecosystem are explored through food web analyses and ecosystem models. Stock assessments are currently conducted for tunas, billfishes, pelagic sharks, bottomfishes, and lobsters. These assessments, along with estimates of the bycatch of sea turtles, seabirds, and marine mammals are provided to support informed decisions by the NOAA Fisheries Pacific Islands Regional Office (PIRO), the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council (WPFMC), and international organizations such as the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC), the International Scientific Committee for Tuna and Tuna-Like Species in the North Pacific Ocean (ISC), and the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission.

Fishery Biology & Stock Assessment Division
FY 2007

Federal 19
Total 28
Salaries and benefits 2,037,025 54.5
Grants 524,944 14.1
Contracts 400,441 10.7
Equipment 83,262 2.2
Supplies 234,004 6.3
Travel & transportation 107,501 2.9
Rent, vessel charters, and communication 344,173 9.2
Printing 4,124 0.1
Total $3,735,474

The FBSAD is organized into three programs:

  • The Fishery Biology and Bycatch Program focuses on identifying methods to minimize incidental capture of sea turtles and other bycatch species in pelagic longline and other fisheries, including modifications to fishing gear and bait, and promotes adoption of such methods through outreach and education programs. The program also conducts research on habitats, movements, distribution, and post-release survivorship of animals released from pelagic fishing gear. Other research is conducted to model the effects of various factors on the vulnerability of pelagic fishes to capture in longline and other fisheries and to use the results in standardizing catch-per-unit-effort (CPUE) data for pelagic stock assessments. Staff in this program also lead the Council's Pelagic Fishery Management Plan (FMP) Team.
  • The Life History Program conducts basic research on the age, growth, and reproductive strategies of managed fish species and bycatch species. The program also collaborates in studies of coral reef fish community structure and responses of reef fish populations to anthropogenic factors.
  • The Stock Assessment Program conducts population assessments of pelagic species, including yellowfin tuna and bigeye tuna in the western and central Pacific and swordfish, striped marlin, and blue shark in the North Pacific. Assessments are also produced for insular species including Hawaiian Archipelago bottomfish and the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands lobster. Top priority is given to the main Hawaiian Islands bottomfish. The program also estimates incidental takes of sea turtles, seabirds, and marine mammals, and the bycatch of fish species (mostly sharks) in the Hawaii longline fishery. Leadership of the Council's Crustaceans and Bottomfish FMP Teams resides in this program.

In addition to directing research activities of the Division, the FBSAD Chief serves as International Science Advisor to the Directors Office, providing critical support and counsel on scientific issues arising with respect to tunas, billfishes, and ecologically associated species in the Pacific. The International Science Advisor is responsible for: providing scientific advice, technical reports, and informed opinion on scientific matters at meetings of the WCPFC, ISC, and other regional fisheries organizations; providing similar scientific support to PIRO, the U.S. State Department, and other members of official U.S. delegations to such meetings; and leading the U.S. delegation to meetings of the WCPFC Scientific Committee. The International Science Advisor also oversees the compilation of official fishery statistics for U.S. fishing fleets harvesting tunas and billfishes in the Pacific Islands Region and, as the U.S. data correspondent, submits such statistics to the WCPFC and other RFOs.

FBSAD staff members also help the Directors Office in overseeing NOAA Grants to the Oceanic Institute, advise the State of Hawaii on matters related to introduced and invasive species, and organize and maintain the PIFSC schedule of research cruises on the NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette.

FBSAD has a staff of 28 people including 19 federal employees and 9 employees of the Joint Institute for Atmospheric Research or other nonfederal entities. Staff salaries and benefits made up the largest share of expenditures in FY 2007.

Key 2007 Accomplishments

  • Completed draft or final Environmental Assessments for Division research on longline gear, captive turtles, finfish, and crustaceans.
  • Participated in international workshops on sea turtles, where scientists presented their country's information on fisheries, including data on interactions of fishing gear with sea turtles, and planned statistical analysis to test hypotheses using such data.
  • Prepared a document summarizing related collaborative research and results in preparation for a national workshop on sea turtle bycatch.
  • Prepared a paper for a meeting of the WCPFC's Science Committee detailing viable solutions for reducing sea turtle bycatch in a region-wide context.
  • Reported preliminary results of an experiment in the Hawaii tuna longline fishery showing that use of deep-set gear without shallow hooks (no hooks down to 100 m depth) results in higher catches of bigeye tuna and greatly reduced catches of marlins and other incidental species compared with unmodified deep-set gear. Prepared a paper promoting use of the modified gear as a way to reduce catch of striped marlin for the WCPFC's Northern Committee.
  • Convened and chaired meetings of the ISC Bycatch Working Group, Swordfish Working Group, and Marlin Working Group. Meeting reports are posted on the ISC Web site.
  • Published a paper on differential heating and cooling rates in bigeye tuna using data from archival tags.
  • Established a sampling program to collect data from Hawaiian groupers caught by Hawaii bottomfish vessels for studies of age, growth, and maturity.
  • Estimated incidental takes of sea turtles, seabirds, and marine mammals in the 2006 Hawaii longline fishery.
  • Estimated bycatch of sharks and other fish species in the 2005 Hawaii longline fishery.
  • Collaborated in updating stock assessments of yellowfin tuna in the western and central Pacific and bottomfish in American Samoa, Guam, and CNMI.
  • Contributed scientific inputs to the WCPFC on a range of topics including status of stocks, catch-per-unit-effort (CPUE) standardization, bycatch mitigation, and post-release mortality of sea turtles.
  • Conducted an annual fishery-independent survey of lobster populations at Necker Island and Maro Reef in the NWHI and ancillary biological sampling of bottomfish at these locales to improve stock assessment.

Challenges, Problems, and Limitations

Opah (lampris gutattus)
Opah (Lampris gutattus) aboard a fishing vessel

Increasing FBSAD staff to meet new mandates continues to be difficult due to limited funding and lack of office space. While adequate funding of sea turtle bycatch studies will likely continue, the budget for fish bycatch research has dwindled, and funding for other fish and ecosystem research is very limited. Core fish stock assessment tasks are substantially funded, but mandates to assess additional species and meet new requirements of the MSA, particularly establishment of annual catch limits for all fisheries are unfunded. FBSAD scientists acquired some short-term funding for fish research from the State's Fisheries Disaster Relief Program.

The Division Chief's new role as International Science Advisor was successfully enabled by delegating leadership of all three FBSAD research programs to senior science staff. However, PIFSC has not received adequate funding for its new PIR responsibilities to provide scientific support for international fisheries agreements.

On the international front, many nations participating in the WCPFC have strongly resisted U.S.-recommended methods for reducing sea turtle bycatch, methods largely tested and widely promoted by FBSAD.

Within the Center, FBSAD is challenged with developing and coordinating integrated research programs needed to support ecosystem approaches to management of living marine resources. In particular, FBSAD scientists need to collaborate more with the EOD in using oceanographic data to improve stock assessments. Among new challenges, FBSAD has been asked to help assess coral reef fisheries and provide scientific advice to the State of Hawaii on management of fisheries in the main Hawaiian Islands through closed areas and other means. Information is often lacking to adequately address these issues, which have traditionally been outside Federal jurisdiction.

Future Focus and Direction

Collaborative testing of improved fishing gear to reduce longline bycatch will continue, with a return to studies of longline–seabird interactions, continued collaboration with other nations on sea turtles and increased attention to sharks. Recommendations for international fisheries conservation measures on bycatch will be actively promoted. Bycatch work will include completion of a new National Bycatch Report with coverage of all fish species and protected species.

New research will be focused on Hawaiian bottomfish life history, distribution, and stock dynamics, using results of the major new sampling projects funded by FDRP. Work will be undertaken on standardizing bottomfish CPUE data to account for previous changes in the fisheries, so that trends in stock abundance over time can be more accurately described and future assessments can be improved. A total allowable catch risk analysis model for MHI bottomfish will be provided to the WPFMC and other stakeholders for their use in scenario analyses. This will satisfy technical requirements for setting annual catch limits for MHI bottomfish, which recent stock assessments indicate have been experiencing excessive fishing mortality.

Review and improvement of stock assessments for tunas, billfishes, and sharks will continue under the auspices of the WCPFC and ISC. Work will be published describing the influence of fish habitat, fishing gear configuration, and other variables on indices of abundance for large pelagic species and the vulnerability of these species to fishing gear. Results will be used in CPUE standardization to improve stock assessments. In addition to stock assessment research, significant effort will be devoted to standardizing and documenting methods of fishery data processing and reporting to meet increasing demands of international agreements for information and advice. Production schedules and report formats will be improved and more detailed and comprehensive fisheries statistics will be reported than in previous years.

Research Priority Given to Main Hawaiian Islands Bottomfish

Biologists and mathematicians in the Fishery Biology and Stock Assessment Division are working together to improve stock assessments of the important multispecies bottomfish complex in the main Hawaiian Islands (MHI). In contrast to the healthy bottomfish resource in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, the MHI complex is being exploited at a level in excess of the maximum sustainable yield (MSY) harvest rate, and the stock biomass has been depleted well below the level required to produce the MSY. Preliminary stock assessments in 2007 showed this undesirable condition has existed for the past 25 years and indicated the reductions in fishing mortality needed to restore the bottomfish stock to a healthy status.

Scientists in the Division have launched an ambitious program to improve understanding of bottomfish biology and collect the data critical to improved stock assessment and effective management. Bottomfish specimens for the study are being collected from catches landed at the Honolulu fish auction and provided by cooperating local fishers. Sampled fish are thoroughly examined to learn more about aging and longevity, growth, maturation, fecundity, and genetics of each species making up the complex. Results of the biological studies will enable construction of more sophisticated and realistic models of bottomfish population dynamics and more useful stock assessments.