UMaine graduate students assist in international fishery management guidance 

At the request of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), University of Maine graduate students this spring semester reviewed scientific reports that will advise several European countries on how to preserve their fisheries. 

ICES enlisted students from the School of Marine Sciences to evaluate its latest stock assessments for any possible errors or other issues. The assessments, each one presenting data for a particular fish population, provide guidance to the European Union on how to manage its fisheries and prevent overfishing. 

UMaine was one of two U.S. universities tapped by ICES, an intergovernmental organization that advises 20 countries on sustainable fishing, to assess the reports this year. Yong Chen, a professor of fisheries population dynamics, and his students at the Chen Lab have reviewed stock assessments for ICES since 2014. 

“The question we most concern ourselves with is does the working group (from ICES) use the best science and methods given the data that is available to them,” says Cameron Hodgdon, a Ph.D. student of marine biology and chair of the UMaine review group. “It’s a huge responsibility; huge takeaway in terms of experience.”

The UMaine-team consisted of 25 reviewers, including graduate students, faculty and one undergraduate student from the Chen Lab and others at UMaine, Shanghai Ocean University and the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Hodgdon says they evaluated 22 stock assessments from May 4–9. 

The reports provided details about several fish populations such as golden eye perch, blue ling, roughhead grenadier and blackspot seabream; as well as management advice. The populations they assess reside in bays and seas spread across the north Atlantic and Arctic oceans.  

The review group determines whether researchers used the optimal science and methods available to prepare their assessments and reach their conclusions, Hodgdon says. Students and faculty presented recommendations for whether ICES should accept the assessments, accept them with caveats, or reject them. 

Nathaniel Willse, a Ph.D. student of marine biology and sub-group leader for the UMaine team, says he and his fellow students checked for any inconsistencies, inappropriate methods, modeling problems and unexplained findings. They also scouted for technical errors, such as typos and missing labels on figures. 

“Our job is to go through each report to see if we find any problems, see if we agree with it, see if their justifications are validated,” says Jaeheon Kim, a marine biology Ph.D. student who participated in the review. “It’s a pretty important part in terms of finalizing the process for ICES.” 

Hodgdon shared the UMaine group’s findings for 13 of the 22 stocks it reviewed at a conference hosted by ICES May 18–20. The team, Hodgdon says, found no major issues with those 13 assessments, which he and his colleagues were required to review before they volunteered to evaluate more. 

“(The findings) were all very well received,” Hodgdon says. “All the (advice drafting group) members kept thanking myself and the Chen Lab for our work and wanted us to know just how appreciative they are that we are involved in this process.”

Evaluating stock assessments helps ensure countries receive proper guidance for overseeing their fish populations. Kim says a mistake could alter how they manage their fisheries and open the door to overfishing. Hodgdon says the worst case scenario would be reporting more fish in a stock than there is, which could result in excess harvesting that can deplete a fish stock.

“That’s the biggest risk with these errors,” Hodgdon says. “If a population gets too small, we may not have that fishery or have that specific fish in the future.”

Working for ICES grants students a look into the work some fishery scientists perform, a unique hands-on experience offered at UMaine. 

“It’s pretty interesting, as a student, to get involved in this,” Willse says. “It’s a good glimpse into a pretty large part of my future career.” 

Contact: Marcus Wolf,