GSO doctoral student named RIDEM marine fisheries chief

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NARRAGANSETT, R.I. –November 2, 2015 — Jason McNamee works at the intersection of science, policy and management as the new chief of marine resources at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. It’s a balancing act that the URI Graduate School of Oceanography doctoral student says he is navigating by keeping open lines of communication with all involved parties.

“I’m right in the middle of the conflicts between fishermen and scientists, but I’ve worked really hard to ensure that our public processes are very open, which has helped the situation in the state a great deal,” said McNamee, who grew up in Connecticut and earned a bachelor’s degree in zoology at URI in 1996.

“There are still a lot of conflicts between fishermen, the federal government, which controls a lot of the fish stock assessment work that goes on, and state government. But I believe that many fishermen recognize the value of science and agree that it should be used when setting up our management programs. We do a lot of collaborative work with our fishing community, as well, which helps to improve communication,” he said. “But it’s still a work in progress.”

McNamee decided to earn a doctorate almost 20 years after completing his undergraduate education because he found that he enjoyed the analytical component of being a fisheries scientist and manager, yet he felt he needed some additional schooling to succeed.

“There’s a lot of math involved in the field of fisheries, which are managed with complex mathematical models, and my background was really more on the ecology side,” he said. “I wanted to get better at my job, and I first tried to learn some of it on my own. But in the end I felt I wasn’t going to get to the level I wanted without going into a Ph.D. program.”

For his dissertation, McNamee is working under the guidance of Professor Jeremy Collie to create a fish stock assessment model that examines multiple species at one time. “We tend to assess fish populations by themselves – siloed and alone – and we’re beginning to realize there is a flaw in a system that doesn’t acknowledge that what’s going on with one population impacts other populations.”

Most of his dissertation work is computer-based, but he doesn’t mind spending so much time in front of a computer since he gets to do plenty of fieldwork for his job at RIDEM. He hopes that the eventual outcome will be a tool that can be used to improve fisheries management in the region.

According to McNamee, Rhode Island is facing a number of challenging issues related to fisheries management. Many of the species important to the commercial fishing industry and the economy of Rhode Island, including summer flounder, black sea bass, and squid, are primarily southern species managed by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, where Rhode Island does not hold a formal seat.

He said that this is also a challenging time to be a fisherman, since fish stocks are dynamic and quotas sometimes change dramatically. Summer flounder quotas, for example, are expected to decline significantly next year, which will have a serious effect on local fishermen at a time when lobsters and most groundfish species are also at historic lows.

“But there’s some good news, too,” McNamee noted. “Rhode Island is one of the biggest harvesters of scup, and the scup stock is doing well. We just have to make sure our system is flexible enough that we can switch from one species to another to keep the fishing industry economically viable while still keeping populations of important species healthy and sustainable.”