Acoustic technology has allowed scientists along the Atlantic Coast to work together to track the movements of thousands of fish in ways unimaginable only a decade ago.
But it has also created some sticky questions: Who “owns” the data — the researcher who inserted the tag in the fish, or the researcher who operated the receiver that detected the fish? How public should that information be? And how should it be archived?
“There is a scientific ethics question of who has the right to use or publish data captured by Joe’s receiver from transmitters Frank paid for,” said Greg Garman, director of the Center for Environmental Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. “And there have been a few instances along the coast where people behaved badly.”
Although researchers around the Bay say they typically work well together, there are examples of problems from other places, such as people publishing data gleaned from fish they never handled.
In the Bay, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Chesapeake Bay Office, which operates six “real time” receivers on buoys in the Bay, has been funding the creation of a data-sharing system within the Bay, the Mid-Atlantic Acoustic Telemetry Observation System, or MATOS.
“There is some initial hesitance among researchers to hand over and completely share their data,” said Doug Wilson, who is developing MATOS.
Wilson said he went into the project thinking, “everybody would be overjoyed to share their data. It hasn’t worked out that way.”
In places along the coast, biologists have ruffled feathers by tagging and releasing fish — a relatively inexpensive procedure — without undertaking the more costly, and time-consuming, effort of operating receivers of their own to collect and share data. In other instances, some receiver operators have been slow to share data — if they do so at all.
“There are growing pains because this thing grew so quickly and now we are trying to establish some rules,” said Dewayne Fox, a fisheries scientist with Delaware State University, who led efforts a decade ago to create the Atlantic Cooperative Telemetry Network to help scientists who tag fish and collect receiver data share information.
“It is more of an organic network, it has come from the bottom up,” Fox said. “It was the users who developed the network, and that organic nature has been widely accepted.”
But sharing data used to publish research papers is a sensitive issue, especially for biologists who may spend weekends or holidays tagging hard-to-find fish, or receiver operators who spend endless hours maintaining ever-growing networks and retrieving data.
The Atlantic network has helped develop policies for sharing data — generally, it’s agreed that the person who tagged a fish “owns” the data, but the person who retrieves the data should also get credit in any publication.
“I think the system has worked fairly well, but there have been some problems,” said Dave Secor, a fisheries scientist at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. “If you hear my fish, you should contact me before you use the data for anything else. I think we are getting over those bumps, and for the most part, it’s worked great.”
The sustainability of the system is a concern. As more fish are tagged, receivers record more and more data — and it takes scientists increasing amounts of time to sort the information and pass it to those who tagged the fish. Delays of several months are routine.
Chris Hager, a biologist with Chesapeake Scientific, a consulting firm, and a former researcher at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, worries about “feudal kingdoms” in which data important for management is never published or shared. He argues that researchers should have exclusive use to their data for some period of time to advance their careers. But because most tags and receivers are bought through federal grants, the data collected with those devices should be preserved, and eventually available to others.
“A lot of this stuff is cubby-holed,” he said. “When that researcher retires or dies, that data goes up in smoke.”
“If we are to build a sustainable marine environment, we must at some point have databases that go beyond a researcher’s life,” Hager said. “The databases actually have to go somewhere, into the hands of some benevolent group.”
Right now, the U.S. Navy, which operates 75 receivers around the Bay, distributes the information it collects to individual researchers, but it also keeps the data it collects. Although it doesn’t publish that data, the Navy may use it to determine whether its operations create problems for rare species such as Atlantic sturgeon and how those problems can be avoided.
Fox praised the Navy’s approach, but said many researchers are worried about creating a centralized system if it comes with overly prescriptive rules and procedures about how data is handled and shared — especially if it increases the researchers’ workloads. While federal agencies fund a lot of tagging work, some is done with state or other funding, he said.
“My concern would be that if we did something that comes down from on high, unless it is done in the right way, you are going to have a lot of players, some who are small, yet important, who say, ‘Thanks, but no thanks, I’m just going to do my own thing.’”