VIMS tries to fill marine scientist gap

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October 24, 2008

1:05 AM

__NOAA warns Congress: Scientists needed to help regrow dwindling fish populations__

The departments of Commerce and Education reported to Congress that a severe shortage of fishery stock scientists is imminent. Virginia Institute of Marine Science officials say that they are working on educating more fishery stock scientists to monitor the ocean’s dwindling fish populations.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report estimates the nation will need between 180 and 340 new fishery stock assessment scientists in the next 10 years, but current institutions will produce only 160.

According to a 2006 study, the world’s seafood will disappear by 2048 if current fishing trends continue.

“At a time when the United States needs more scientists to provide the tools to rebuild valuable fish stocks and restore marine mammals and turtles, we are seeing a shortage of well-trained fishery scientists,” NOAA administrator Conrad Lautenbacher said in a press release. “We must work with universities and the private sector to convince young people to pursue careers in marine science.”

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, one in five people depend on fish as their primary source of protein and 97 percent of fishers live in developing countries.

Fishery stock science combines biology and math to determine the size and health of fish populations. With too few scientists monitoring fishing practices, the fish population could be pushed dangerously low or even brought to extinction.

Fishery stock scientists can help research and promote sustainable rates of fishing so as to prevent overfishing, which could endanger many people in developing countries.

VIMS, a graduate school at the College of William and Mary, is located in Gloucester Point, Va., and its data was used in the creation of the report.

Fishery sciences department chair John Olney said VIMS is one of the major marine science institutions in the United States, with 120 graduate students and 60 faculty.

He said that all of the members of the faculty fully embrace and agree with the findings of the report and added that VIMS has already achieved the preparedness that the report advises.

“The recommendations that the report brings forward are already part of our curriculum,” Olney said. “VIMS is well positioned for producing the professionals [the departments of Commerce and Education] are looking for.”

Olney said that 35 students work in fishery science, and between five and eight are being trained in stock assessment methods.

“In the last five years, we’ve been gearing up in the area of quantitative fishery science. At least four members of our faculty are experts in the field,” Olney said. “We are one of the national academic units that are steadily producing stock assessment scientists.”

Unfortunately, this request for additional scientists arrives at the same time as a large state budget cut. Olney said VIMS has yet to determine how the budget cuts will affect the school.

The state contributes approximately 40 percent of VIMS’ operating budget.

“It’s difficult to swallow,” Olney said. “We’re kind of down to the bare bones here. If [the budget cuts] continue to increase, it’s going to start cutting pretty deeply.”

He said VIMS can survive as long as grants and contracts are available, but added that federal funding is important to VIMS as well.

VIMS does not rely solely on the state for assistance. The Southeast Fisheries Science Center in Miami, Fla., has provided money to support fellowships for stock assessment scientists at VIMS.

Fishery science professor John Hoenig is one beneficiary of these funds. Through his connections with the SEFSC and NOAA, he secured grants for several students at VIMS. Two students are currently fully sponsored through the NOAA-SEFSC Sea Grant program.

One of those students, Matt Smith M.S. ’09 is studying quantitative fishery stock assessment.

“Any time you can get funding and not have to worry about tuition and the other expenses it’s a huge relief,” Smith said. “It allows more time to focus on research projects and academics. It has allowed me to get started on research faster than if I had to track down grant money and funding.”

Smith hopes to help sustain commercial fisheries around the world.

“My major interest in this field has always been from a long-term conservation standpoint,” Smith said. “We have a history of not necessarily maintaining fisheries in a sustainable way. My goal is to learn the skills I’ll need to be a part of a fishery service that deals with commercial stocks to sustain fisheries for the future.”

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