Economist to tell how big data could tame overfishing

A vaquita, a species of critically endangered porpoise, is seen in the Gulf of California

UO economist Grant McDermott keeps his eyes on fishing activities on the open seas, looking at the troubling bycatch of turtles and dolphins, for instance, and how well-intentioned policies aimed at protecting global fishing stocks are falling short.

In a Sept. 12 Quack Chats pub talk, McDermott will discuss how trolling big data is helping scientists get an accurate handle on fishing practices and how information reeled in from satellite monitoring and ships' onboard navigation systems can guide conservation policies.

Until recently, the global fishing industry worked the oceans mostly away from prying eyes.

“Fishing, like a lot of extractive industries, has been done out of sight, out of mind,” said McDermott, an assistant professor in the UO Department of Economics. “Now, thanks to satellite data through remote sensing, we are able to get an unprecedented view and insight into what’s happening.”

His pub talk will begin at 6 p.m. at the Ax Billy Grill & Sports Bar, on the third floor of the Downtown Athletic Club, 999 Willamette St. Admission is free. Food and drinks will be available for purchase.

McDermott, who joined the UO in September 2017, became an affiliated research partner with Global Fishing Watch while he was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His work, in a continuing collaboration with his UCSB colleagues, has helped reshape the understanding of issues related to overfishing.

Just last month, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, his team reported that fishing vessels swarmed into an international fishing area in the South Pacific immediately preceding a complete closure. That rush of fishing, which reflected a normal human response to a major policy change, set back by 18 months the goal to protect the Phoenix Islands Protected Area by allowing fish stocks to rebound.

Such harm, his team concluded, also could affect conservation measures targeted for all of the world’s marine protected areas. Last-minute overfishing, McDermott said, conceivably could put some species past the point of no return. The human response, he argued, should be factored into conservation policies to better manage efforts to maintain fishing stocks.

In March, McDermott and colleagues argued in the journal Science that improved fisheries management could reverse spiraling population declines in roughly half of threatened ocean species caught unintentionally. The team concluded that the effort could be done with less than a 5 percent loss in profits and eventually raise overall yields by 15 percent and profits by as much as 80 percent.

He will lay out his research and where it is headed in his pub talk.

Quack Chats is a program of University Communications. For more information, see the Quack Chats section on Around the O. A general description of Quack Chats and a calendar of additional Quack Chats and associated public events also can be found on the UO’s Quack Chats website.

—By Jim Barlow, University Communications