The latest

Psychologist Brian Cheuvront is ensuring that fish, lobster and other marine treats stay on our plates — and in our waters (credit: Scott Taylor)

Social psychologist Brian Cheuvront, PhD, has long held a passion for fishing and ecology. As a young boy growing up in Southern California, he used to fish off jetties, scraping abalones off the rocks to cut up and use for bait. But as he got older, "there were no longer any abalones to use," he says.

That got him thinking about the reasons behind the loss — whether people were killing too many abalones or were they dying off because of pollution, for example.

Ten years ago, Cheuvront had the opportunity to combine his interest in protecting marine life and his social psychology training when he landed a job as an economic and social specialist at the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries. There, he examined how controlling the amount of fishing that could be done in fisheries affected fishermen's jobs and livelihoods. In 2011, he was tapped for a similar job but in a federal capacity, as a staff member at the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, which oversees 93 marine species off the coasts of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and parts of Florida.

The job involves a major ecological mission: enforcing the federal law that mandated an end to overfishing federally managed species by January 2011, and ordered plans to rebuild overfished stock by January 2012.

To help realize these goals, Cheuvront is responsible for two things. He educates commercial and recreational fishermen about sustainable fishing, and he analyzes how fishermen respond to the new rules. These aren't always easy tasks, as fishermen's time in the water is sometimes curtailed depending on the number of available fish in a given year, leaving them with newfound unemployment and a lot of raw emotion, he explains.

"From the fishermen's perspective, we've had to do some very, very difficult things in terms of regulating what they can do on the water," says Cheuvront. "Our job is to explain the situation to them as clearly as possible, hear them out, and when possible, help them figure out alternative employment."

Hitting the Road

To spread the message about the regulations and give fishermen their say, Cheuvront travels to public hearings throughout the South Atlantic region.

At one meeting for recreational fisherman in Jacksonville, Fla., for instance, Cheuvront faced their anger over the fact that they weren't allowed to catch more black sea bass, red grouper and wreckfish, though the water seemed to teem with them. Cheuvront had to explain that those waters have been overfished since the 1980s and that the numbers of these fish are still below sustainable levels.

Given fishermen's reactions, Cheuvront is glad he has a store of social psychology strategies to draw on, including active listening, persuasion and perspective-taking.

"While technically I'm representing the council, I also try to let [the fishermen] know I understand where they're coming from," he says. The process sometimes allows them to change the way a policy is put into practice, such as deciding when a fishery must be closed, he says.

Trolling for Data

Cheuvront also puts his psychological training into practice by analyzing the economic, social and behavioral effects of new regulations.

"We have huge data sets, so I do a lot of research related to problem-solving, puzzle-solving, and 'what if' scenarios," he says.

For instance, he is now analyzing predictions about how many fish will inhabit the South Atlantic fisheries over the next year, and relating that to how fishermen will change their behavior in response to regulatory changes. The aim is to determine how fisheries are affected as fishermen change the venues where they fish — something they can do if they have equipment and techniques to fish species other than their usual ones.

"When the mackerel fishing season takes place, for instance, do guys who can no longer fish in the bass fishery have the ability to move into the mackerel fishery?" he says. "We have to figure that sort of thing out and predict who will move where, as well as how such moves will impact a particular fishery." The situation is similarly complex from a human angle, he adds. Because each fishery has a quota on how much fishing can be done and hence on the number of fishermen who can fish there, the result can be a "first-come-first-served mentality" that leaves some fishermen catchless — and angry.

The Larger Impact

The work can be tough, especially when it involves direct communication with disgruntled fishermen, says Cheuvront. "Public hearings can get pretty ugly," he says. In fact, police often stand by to discourage violence.

That said, he loves his job and he's often reminded of what a colleague told him when he complained about having to take potentially hurtful actions. "Understand that you're part of something historic," his colleague said. "We're ending overfishing and helping to ensure that fish will be there for future generations."

Cheuvront agrees. "It's a difficult balance, making sure we protect a natural resource while trying to do the right thing by people," he says. "But in the long run, I think it's going to be the right thing."

Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.