It’s December, it’s five a.m., and it’s cold. Eileen Vandenburgh is picking through clams, counting and measuring them, and taking temperature and position readings. Her day has just begun, and she’ll be out on the boat for about fifteen hours.

Vandenburgh, a graduate student in the Curriculum in Ecology, is working with Cedar Island fisherman Dallas Goodwin to evaluate how clam kicking — using mechanical gear attached to the boat’s bottom to loosen the sediment and uncover clams — affects clam habitats and populations. Kicking is legal only in limited areas and at certain times of the year. Vandenburgh’s data are being used by the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries to create a management plan for North Carolina’s hard clam fishery.

Her project is one of many sponsored by the Fisheries Resource Grant (FRG) Program, which funds research that includes substantial involvement from at least one sport or commercial fisherman. The North Carolina General Assembly started the FRG program to help protect and preserve fisheries along the North Carolina coast. Researchers evaluate new equipment, conduct environmental pilot studies, and study aquaculture, mariculture, and technology for the seafood industry.

Other Carolina graduate students and faculty have spent time on the water conducting FRG projects. Galen Johnson, a graduate student in marine sciences, says, “Working with a fisherman who understands more on some issues than scientists do, because they’re out there every single day for fourteen or fifteen hours, gives you knowledge that you’re just not going to get from sitting in your office and reading, or even going out on a research boat.”

Johnson has weathered a lot of shrimping trips — seventy or eighty over the past two summers — all in the middle of the night when the shrimp are feeding and moving. “My days and nights were completely reversed,” Johnson says. And while most of the projects include one or two fishermen, Johnson’s research involved twelve. She went out on several types of boats and in various areas of Core Sound, Bogue Sound, and the Neuse River.

Johnson is studying by-catch — fish and other sea creatures that the shrimpers can’t use — from shrimp nets. The nets are made of fine mesh, and the shrimpers catch small blue crabs and other fish along with shrimp. The fishermen throw the by-catch back in the water, and most of it doesn’t survive.

That looks like a big waste, but Johnson says that blue crabs may eat most of the by-catch. To study that idea, she started with buckets and scales. When the shrimp came in, she and an assistant would weigh the entire catch and figure out how much was shrimp and how much was by-catch. Then Johnson would pack up a subsample to take back to the lab for identification. She also studied how long the by-catch might survive when the crew threw it back into the water. On the boat, she put aerated sea water into a bucket and added ten individuals from each species in the by-catch. After fifteen minutes and again after thirty minutes, she noted what had survived and what had not.

Now, back in her lab, she analyzes the blue crab population using computer models. “We’re using the model to look at whether having this extra food available is allowing more blue crabs to be in the area than would otherwise be possible,” she says. Her preliminary data show that the by-catch does help sustain a larger population of crabs. That’s good, because blue crabs are among the most marketable products for North Carolina fishermen, and blue crabs’ food in the sounds tends to dwindle toward the end of the summer.

Shrimping in the sounds is controversial, though. Many sport fishermen complain that the by-catch, most of which doesn’t survive, includes many of the fish they want to catch — mackerel and flounder, for instance. As it turns out, most of the by-catch is spot, croaker, and pinfish. Spot and croaker are in demand from both sport and commercial fishermen, Johnson says, but those fish are plentiful. As for pinfish, “They’re kind of like mice. There are a lot of them, and not many people eat them.”

Johnson and the other researchers have learned that their research could have a profound impact on the lives of fishermen. North Carolina often considers legislation that restricts shrimp trawling — scraping the bottom of the ocean floor to catch shrimp. “If you look at it as an ecologist,” Johnson says, “they’re destroying the ground. But then you go out with the shrimpers, and they’re not big fishing corporations, they’re men who are going out every day to make money for their kids. They’re trying to send their kids to college. They’re trying to eat. They’ve invested everything they own in a boat, and if the legislature bans shrimp trawling, that’s their whole livelihood.”

The fishermen also help the scientists design experiments that reflect real situations. While a scientist might think that towing a trawl for two minutes constitutes a good small-scale experiment, a fisherman can be realistic. “The fishermen say, ‘We would never do it that small — get real,’” says Sean Powers, a former postdoctoral researcher in marine sciences who used an FRG to study clam aquaculture. He found that clam “farmers” could increase their yield by “planting” in sites with higher water velocities.

Some fishermen who have already worked with the FRG program make good allies for the scientists. About her first fisherman partner, Johnson says, “He can point out things in my report and say, ‘That’s going to make people mad — can you back that statement up more or phrase that differently?’” In turn, the fishermen get a glimpse of how scientists make decisions and reach conclusions. “A lot of fishermen don’t understand the research and think there are a lot of conspiracies against them,” Powers says. “They get their livelihood from fishing. They have to be cautious about it.”

So when Johnson writes up her research results, she might remember one of her research partners, a young shrimper. “He would go out from sundown until eleven or twelve, and then he would go to school the next day,” she says. By the time he graduated from high school, he had saved up enough to buy his own boat. “Fishing is how he gets by.”

Mary Alice Scott was formerly a staff writer for Endeavors.

The Fisheries Resource Grant Program is administered by the North Carolina Sea Grant College Program.