Fishing for Answers

From the June 2002 issue of Collaborations

By Randy Seaver

(ROCKPORT, MASS.) Bill Lee happily mutters to himself as he cleans the deck of his boat. Like hundreds of other fishermen throughout New England, Lee has been hit hard by recent changes in federal groundfishing rules, but unlike many of his colleagues he has found an innovative way to soften the blow.

As he works to remove debris from the renovations he recently made to the wheelhouse of his 43-foot trawler (F/VOcean Reporter), Lee says U.S. District Court Judge Gladys Kessler most likely had no idea about how her April 26 decision would affect the fishing industry. 

bill_Page_1But on this otherwise perfect day — with clear skies and calm seas — Lee’s biggest complaint is about thelack of available parking spaces on Rockport’s main pier.

“Tourist season hasn’t even started, and it’s already hard to find a spot down here,” he smiles, shrugging his shoulders and carrying a barrel of trash along the dock. “A lot of these guys don’t have anything to do, so they all hang out over at that café [Flav’s] all day.”

Even before Kessler decided to vacate her order and lighten some of her restrictions late last month, Lee was keeping himself steadily optimistic by participating in a process known as collaborative research.

So instead of rigging his nets for flounder or cod, Lee is installing an underwater camera frame in the net at the stern of his vessel. It’s just another way the 54-year-old fisherman has learned to adapt, and that — he says — is what keeps him going.

“I’ve always been a big believer in the collaborative process,” Lee says. “If you think about it, that’s the way it should be.”

In the past few years, Lee has earned an enviable reputation in collaborative research circles.

“If you ask me, Bill epitomizes the beauty of cooperative research,” said Dr. Earl Meredith of the National Marine Fisheries Science Center in Gloucester. Meredith, a marine biologist, is a member of the New England Fisheries Management Council’s Research Steering Committee.

“Bill is one of those guys who you always love to talk with,” Meredith continued. “He’s always pumped up about an ongoing project or a new idea. He approaches the process with a lot of enthusiasm.”

For his part, Lee says the enthusiasm is just part of a natural evolution that starts when you participate in the collaborative process. He is nonchalant, now focusing his attention on a series of video wires in the wheelhouse of his boat.

There’s something unique about the video gear that Lee uses: it’s all been built in his basement. For example, one of the camera frames he built includes an automobile tire. That way, Lee explains, the underwater camera mounted inside the tire is left undamaged as its housing bounces harmlessly in the net.

Despite the mass of video cables and connectors, Lee is organized about the process of his underwater videotaping. Each camera is designated as either color or black and white, depending on the color of the flange that is mounted to the camera frame. Generally, Lee uses three cameras but he can operate as many as eight.

“Personally, I think this is the way to go,” he says, checking each of the wire connections as we prepare to leave the dock. “When you catch the fish on videotape, you’re not killing them in order to understand their behavior.”

Of principles and practicality —

Bill Lee describes himself as a fisherman, not as a scientist. At the same time, he has converted one entire room of his Rockport home into a well-equipped video production facility. And his basement, although similar to many other do-it-yourselfers’ basements — featuring a drill press and an entire wall of hanging tools — also houses a vast array of high-tech video cable and underwater camera building equipment.

But Lee didn’t start his collaborative research career by producing underwater home videos. Instead, it was a chance encounter with an independent marine biologist that got Lee involved in collaborative research.

Dr. Allan Michael first met Bill Lee some 13 years ago, when the city of Gloucester put out bids for water quality samples. According to Michael, there wasn’t an instant chemistry between the two men — each of whom was accustomed to working independently.

“Bill is certainly full of energy,” Michael says. “Talk about catching a tiger by the tail. I’m just a quiet scientist, but Bill is always on the go, ready to tackle a dozen things all at once. I guess you could say that I’m the steadying influence in our partnership.”

The partnership and acceptance of each other’s differences has served both men well. By working together — a quiet scientist and an ambitious fisherman — Lee and Michael have been able to share their resources on a number of collaborative research projects.

Last year, Lee and Michael were awarded a $35,000 grant from the Northeast Consortium for a project in which they set out to test the effectiveness of a Nordmore-style grate by using underwater videotaping. The grate is placed in the cod end of a trawl net in order to reduce bycatch of non-targeted fish species.

While a typical Nordmore-style grate features vertical bars that are spaced approximately one inch apart, Lee’s grate featured horizontal bars that are spaced three inches apart. The modifications, he says, are based upon fish behavior — behavior that he was able to videotape in a video he produced for the Northeast Consortium.

In the video, which Lee narrates, flounders are shown swimming with a tendency to swim downward, while cod — much stronger swimmers — escape the specially designed net by swimming upward.

Despite the effectiveness of Lee’s underwater video equipment, he keeps a close eye on the cost of the equipment, working to build things that any other fisherman could do easily and without a lot of money.

“You see the radius on this camera frame?” Lee asks as he moves toward the stern of his boat. “That’s the same radius as a standard 5-gallon pail. Show me a fisherman who doesn’t have a 5-gallon pail on his boat. Things don’t need to be expensive in order to be effective”

As an example, Lee’s scientific partner talks about a time early in their relationship when Lee demonstrated his most practical side.

“I was once looking at purchasing a piece of equipment that cost roughly $12,000,” Michael said. “I showed it to Bill, and he built it for me for about $20. He’s very innovative and incredibly motivated.”

In fact, Lee built the 43-foot F/V Ocean Reporter from the keel onward in 1986. “I knew what I wanted and I just decided to build it myself,” he says with a shrug. He learned welding while serving in the U.S. Navy Seabees during the Vietnam War, but he admits that he has always liked to “tinker with things to figure out how they work.”

Lee’s curiosity and ingenuity is displayed in the video he produced for the Northeast Consortium. As he narrates through the video images, he meticulously describes every detail of the research project, showing the gear that was used and how the cameras and lighting equipment were placed into the water.

“A lot of it has to be done by trial and error,” he says. “You just have to keep trying different things.” In the first few minutes of the tape, Lee tells his viewers that attempts to use color film underwater was complicated by underwater plant species that provided too much camouflage for the fish he hoped to capture on tape. He also details the problems he and Michael encountered when they attempted to use reflective lights during the filming process.

Lee is also not a big believer in proprietary information when it comes to doing collaborative research. Instead he says the information from his research should be shared with as many people as possible.

“Everything we’re doing out there is being funded by the federal government,” he says. “That’s why I believe in being accountable for everything. There should be no secrets.”

For all of his seriousness about collaborative research, Lee also has a well-developed sense of humor, which is best demonstrated by his strong Yankee heritage and his passion of videotape production. For instance, at the end of his baited underwater video, Lee narrates a story about Billy “The Bully” Lobster. During the short segment, shot entirely on location underwater in Ipswich Bay, viewers are treated to images of a lobster that tends to “bully” some nearby crabs.

The crabs exact their revenge by tricking Billy and luring him into a nearby lobster trap by telling him “there’s plenty of food over there.”

Lee’s colleagues and friends describe him as friendly, outgoing and a modern-day Renaissance man; someone who can tackle a myriad of complicated tasks with relative ease and enthusiasm.

“He has to be one of the most dynamic and fascinating guys I know,” Meredith said.

In 1996, Lee was given a Public Service Commendation from the U.S. Coast Guard for his role in the rescue of Harbor Pilot Capt. Bill Chambers of Gloucester, who had fallen from a ladder and into the ocean in the pre-dawn hours of Jan. 21, 1996. Lee was commended for his quick thinking and response while working as the operator of the pilot boat that was dispatched to retrieve Capt. Chambers from the Danish M/V Fresca.

“You do the things you need to do when you need to do them,” Lee says of the incident.

Today, Lee is excited about some upcoming projects he is planning. In just a few weeks, a marine biologist from New Zealand will be visiting the Gloucester area to discuss conducting a research project similar to the one Lee and Michael recently completed for the Northeast Consortium.

“I think it’s pretty exciting that someone from New Zealand can recognize the benefits of what we’re trying to do right here in New England,” Lee said.

Additionally, Lee has placed an advertisement in local trade publications, seeking the assistance of other New England fishermen. He wants to work more on studying fish behavior and designing bycatch reduction techniques that rely primarily on videotape rather than traditional net studies.

“Why kill the fish in order to figure out how not to kill the fish?” he asks.

“Sometimes I think I’m just a dumb fisherman,” Lee says. “but if someone like me can do this kind of stuff, there’s no reason that other guys can’t get involved, too.”

Note: For more information about obtaining one of Lee’s videos or one of his planned collaborative research projects, you may visit his website at or call 978-546-2748.

One thought on “Fishing for Answers

  1. Pingback: All Along the Watchtower | Get back

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