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Ecotrust Software Charts Best Coastal Fishing Grounds

One of Oregon’s leading environmental organizations received a prestigious technology award on Monday.

The Mellon Foundation has awarded Ecotrust $50,000 in recognition of its mapping software designed to chart the best coastal fishing grounds.

The software has already been widely used in California. As Rob Manning reports, the new maps could help  conservation and fishing groups in Oregon resolve the ongoing controversy over marine reserves.

Last month, Oregon’s Ocean Policy Advisory Council approved  two marine reserves for protection and research.  That disappointed many conservation advocates who were hoping for more. They had proposed twenty reserves.

Scott McMullen is the advisory council’s chair. He says many proposals fell flat because they couldn't  prove that the reserves would not hurt the fishing industry.

Scott McMullen: “Lack of economic information was a huge problem for many of the proposals, particularly when you add to that the fact there wasn’t broad support.”

McMullen says that there was good economic data for the two-mile proposal approved for Port Orford. Advocates there proved their reserve wouldn’t hurt the economy with maps showing that the valuable fishing areas were outside the reserve.

They drew those maps with the help of software designed by Ecotrust.

Astrid Scholz is a vice president at Ecotrust. She says the technology was developed not in response to a lack of data - but because there was actually bad data, in California. 

Astrid Scholz: “It was really striking. I think the data was reporting that 75 percent of the Dungeness crab catch for San Francisco was coming out of water that was two-thousand fathoms. I’m six-foot-three, a fathom is about six feet, there isn’t a hydraulic winch in the world that will haul up a crab trap from that depth - so we knew something was fishy about this data, if you forgive the pun.”

So, Scholz and her colleagues threw out the faulty data collected on-shore, and they began talking to the people who actually run fishing boats. But Scholz says that ended up being harder  than it sounds.

Astrid Scholz: “”You’re asking people to tell you where they’re fishing, where they’re making their living - and not surprisingly, there were some reservations and some skepticism early on. We are a conservation organization. People are suspicious of your agenda.”

Scholz says Ecotrust has won the trust of fishermen by keeping information as confidential as possible. What gets shared publicly is an anonymous summary.

Here’s how it works.

Fishermen basically get 100 “pennies” to put wherever they want, to demonstrate the value of different spots. They can put them all in one place, or spread them around.

Scholz says lobstermen won’t put them in the same place as sardine fishermen do, for instance. All of that data then gets organized  and matched up with on-shore sales information.

The result is a map of a particular port. Those maps have helped guide marine protection efforts in  California — in places like San Francisco.

Ecotrust vice president, Astrid Scholz, says the crab information there looks a lot different, now.

Astrid Scholz: “There were particular areas you know - off Point Reyes for example - you can even see it on this map, there’s a red spot here that’s valuable, that if you remember back to the official statistics, it doesn’t show up at all as important. So you can see how conflicts might happen.”

Conflict has been the name of the game for Oregon’s marine reserves. But again, the problem hasn’t been bad economic data, it’s been no data.

The head of the Ocean Policy Advisory Council says this mapping could be used statewide to help determine other marine reserves. But Ecotrust’s marine planning director, Charles Steinback says it might be too late since the marine proposals are already on the table.

Charles Steinback: “Those communities already know where people are putting lines on the map, so if you were to go to the fishermen, and ask them where their fishing spots are at, and how valuable they are, they would probably try to game the system.”

Steinback’s colleague, Astrid Schultz, is a little more optimistic. She says if local fishermen can be convinced that good maps aren’t just important for marine reserves - they might still participate.

Scholz points out that wave energy projects could be in the offing.  And if fishermen don't participate truthfully in mapping good fishing areas, they could lose those areas to other uses in the future.