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Updated October 1, 2018
Originally posted August 31, 2018
Contact: Teri Frady

Reaching Out to a Vital But Little Understood Fishing Asset: The Crew

Social scientists from NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center are headed to major fishing ports in the region to talk face-to-face with the workers who make commercial fishing operations, well, operate.

For the next several months, these researchers plan to be where crew are likely to be, at times when they might have a few moments to talk about themselves and their work. In August and September they surveyed in New Bedford, Gloucester, and Fairhaven, Mass.; in Point Judith, RI; and in Stonington, Portland, Rockland, Owl's Head, and Kennebunkport, Maine. Just over 180 completed surveys have been obtained. In October the team will be in New York and New Jersey, with plans to head to Virginia and North Carolina in November.

"Part of our work is to help fishery managers understand how regulatory actions and fishery conditions affect the lives and communities of fishermen and their families,” said Lisa Colburn, a social scientist who is leading the study. “To do that, and to make sure these voice are heard, we need data. There’s just not enough on crew, including hired captains.”

Crew are among the least documented workers in commercial fishing operations, and there is no ready list or database of crew members from which to work. To find out more, Colburn and her team designed a relatively simple survey. Interviewers will collect responses to survey questions in person from willing crew members. They will also have paper copies of the survey that can be filled out any time and mailed to the team.

What Researchers Want to Know

Colburn stressed that no information is collected in this effort that would identify an individual taking the surveys. “We are not collecting names or contact information or names of employers or vessels – really, nothing that would allow an individual to be identified.”

Instead, the survey focuses on topics such as recent work, typical fishing activity in a year, availability of work, types of work, fishing income, perceptions of fishery management and ability to participate in those decisions, job satisfaction, and well-being. It also gathers demographic information.

This effort is one piece of a larger Northeast Fisheries Science Center effort to gather information about people whose livelihoods are supported by commercial fishing and the second to focus on crew, including hired captains. The first was conducted in 2012 and 2013.

Shorter, More Effective Survey Used

Based on that work, the 2018-2019 survey has been revised. It’s shorter, with fewer questions, and a response time of about 10 minutes, compared with 30 minutes or more required to complete the earlier survey. The number of ports on the list is larger, about 50, but effort at each port is proportional to the social and economic importance of fishing. That means collecting data in different seasons and from crew that work in different fisheries, on vessels that vary length and in gear type.

Small teams of 2 to 4 interviewers will be deployed beginning in August, for an effort that will likely go on into the beginning of 2019. They hope to get about 450 responses in all, distributed across major ports and fisheries.

Finding Crew to Survey

Typically there would be some kind of contact list to at least start from when planning a survey. Lacking that, interviewers try to time their efforts to be in places where crew are most likely to be available and not busy working. It isn’t easy to get that timing right, and sometimes people are just reluctant to participate. The team is doing some advance work when possible, talking with local fishing and community leaders ahead of time about the project, answering questions and trying to learn more about when and where crew are most likely to be available.

“The best method we have found,” said Colburn, “is to go where crew are likely to be and do all we can to information out ahead of time about what we are doing, why we are doing it, and how vital this information is to building a more complete picture of what is actually happening among fishing people and their communities.”