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Growing up on the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia, Kevin Stokesbury spent as much time as possible swimming, searching for sand shrimp, and soaking up the sun with his siblings.

Now as dean of the School for Marine Science and Technology (SMAST) at UMass Dartmouth, he’s finding practical applications for his passion with the sea. Stokesbury has played an integral role in revitalizing the scallop industry in New Bedford, inventing a drop camera in 1999 that snapped photos of scallops living on the seafloor, giving scientists and fishermen much more precise estimates of scallop numbers than previously available. The location map and information accompanying the photographs have proved vital.

Stokesbury’s invention has greatly boosted the local economy. Before the drop camera, scallop boats brought in an annual harvest valued around $89 million. In 2021, it was $670 million, according to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) commercial landings report

Stokesbury has dedicated his career to fisheries sciences, specifically fisheries oceanography. His work involves studying sea scallops and looking at technological innovations to examine stock assessments and resources on the seafloor. He also researches groundfish and recently has been delving into the impacts of offshore wind turbines on fisheries and the environment.

Kevin Stokesbury outside the SMAST building on South Rodney French Boulevard in New Bedford. Credit: Jon LeBlanc-Unger / The New Bedford Light.

As an undergraduate at Nova Scotia’s Acadia University, he studied marine biology before transitioning to marine ecology as a master’s student. In addition to his studies, Stokesbury ran his own diving company and worked with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada. Then, he relocated to the University of Laval to pursue a PhD in marine ecology.

In 2008, he was awarded the Friend of the Fishing Industry Award, which was read into the congressional record later that year. In 2013, he received the David H. Wallace Award from the National Shellfish Association, and in 2018 he was named The Standard-Times Southcoast Man of the Year. More recently, Stokesbury has been appointed to The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine committee for “Assessment and Advancement of Science in the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s Environmental Studies Program,” and he is the president-elect of the National Shellfisheries Association.

The New Bedford Light sat down with Stokesbury and talked about his career, the impact of the drop camera, and his lifelong love of the ocean.

The New Bedford Light: Was marine science always something you were interested in?

Kevin Stokesbury: Always. Always. There’s a picture my mom sent me of my brother and I — my brother’s a marine scientist who works on tuna, and he’s a great professor at Acadia — and (in the photo) he’s still in diapers, four years younger than me. And I’m standing next to him with a little mask on. We’re trying to try to find sand shrimp from the Bay of Fundy. Wolfville, the town next to where we grew up, is right at the very head of the Bay of Fundy. You’re influenced by these huge tides, and especially in the summer as a kid, your life cycle revolves around the tide and when you can go swimming. … My dad was in the U.S. Navy, and he was a military historian and a professor, so always interested in the ocean and the sea and also academia. Of course, that was the Jacques Cousteau era, and so as soon as I could scuba dive, I was doing it.

Kevin Stokesbury’s scuba diving certification, which he proudly shows off to this day. Contributed

NBL: How did you end up at UMass Dartmouth?

KS: I did my PhD on the ecology of the scallop, and there were some unfished beds up there [in Quebec]. So we really got to look at having their natural existence without fishing. But that was just after the cod crash and so there wasn’t nearly as much work in Canada. I was lucky enough to get a postdoc at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. … Then that job ended and the Exxon Valdez oil spill happened. So my wife and I moved to Alaska, and I did my second postdoc at the University of Alaska Fairbanks looking at the effects of the Exxon Valdez oil spill on the Pacific herring … and particularly the impact on Prince William Sound and the herring fishery … I led the field program … but then that job ended and luckily the scallop position came open here. They needed somebody to work on scallops.

Brian Rothschild was the director of the Center for Marine Science and Technology at the time. He’s one of the guys that created the whole discipline. And so the chance to work with him … it was something else. I came here and started as a research fellow, and then became a professor, and it’s just been great. I’ve had a really close relationship with the fishing industries, and they’re a fantastic group to work with.

NBL: How has climate change affected the work that you do or hope to do in the future?

KS: On the Eastern Seaboard, here in our community, you want to have food security, you want to have secure renewable energy, and you want to be able to understand and provide as much as possible a plan to prevent climate change, either through ocean warming or ocean acidification. So those are the three directions that I’m hoping to take and enhance SMAST during my tenure as dean. These three areas are all really important, and they all interact.

NBL: What does the transition from commonwealth professor to dean of SMAST look like for you?

KS: One of the transitions which might be a little challenging for me — because I really like to teach — [is that] I probably won’t be able to teach as much, but perhaps I will be able to enable some of our younger research faculty and postdocs to teach.

I’ve had so far, and I hope to continue to have, an amazing career in science where I’ve been able to do all kinds of different field work, which is what I love to do. And I also like to write about it and to publish that information and to mentor students, so I’ll still be mentoring students. But in this sense, I will hope to mentor the whole school. I enjoyed being the chair for 12 years, and during that time we grew from two to six or seven faculty.

You’re able to select talent, see how people work together, and try and use their assets. And what you want to build is something that’s bigger than the parts, kind of [like] referring to a rock band, where each member might be good, but you put them together, and they’re really something special. And that’s what you want to do here for any particular cohort of graduate students, but also for the faculty.

The drop camera invented by Kevin Stokesbury, which helped revive the scallop industry. Contributed

NBL: How did you develop the drop camera for scallops on the seafloor?

KS: When we first started working, Brian [Rothschild] and I, the scallop fishery was really in a terrible shape. About a third of the fleet was facing bankruptcy. And they had these large closed areas on Georges Bank in the mid-Atlantic. We worked with the Marine Fishery Service and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, and we did this combined trawl survey, and that suggested that in Closed Area Two, which is the one furthest to the east, there were a lot more scallops in those areas than the federal survey was showing them.

So I said — and it was based on my diving experience — maybe we can do something with cameras, because it’s too deep to deep dive, but maybe we can drop a camera down and take pictures. So that developed the drop camera cooperative program that we’ve been running for the last 25 years with the fishing industry. It’s designed to go on fishing boats. Fishermen helped me build it. When it first went out, it was just myself, and those guys. Now, in many cases, we’re working with their sons, and daughters. What we do is we go out on a vessel, and we put our gear on, and then we go and we do a grid pattern, and we take pictures.

Once we have those images, we bring them back here. I trained between between 10 and 15 students, and they’re everything from high school interns, right up through to graduate students. So they all learn the 50 or so different invertebrates, you need to identify the substrate, the different types of fish. We identify those. We actually have a program that allows us to draw squares around them, which helps us measure them. And that’s how we do it.

NBL: That’s amazing. And then you can calculate the number of scallops in a given area from that information?

KS: That’s the information the Marine Fishery Service needs to calculate how many scallops you can safely harvest each year, and that’s what we’ve done for the last 20 years. However, the thing about it is that there’s a huge amount of information for these pictures. …

I developed it in 1999, so you have this very large database that you can look at these changes now with the wind farms coming on, at least in the mid-Atlantic. For scallops anyway, you have a fairly reasonable database to say, “OK, this is what it was like and how these developments affected this fishery.” And so that’s a whole different avenue of research that we’re starting to start to do.

Kevin Stokesbury played an integral role in revitalizing the scallop industry in New Bedford, inventing a drop camera In 1999 that gave scientists and fishermen much more precise estimates of scallop numbers. Credit: Jon LeBlanc-Unger / The New Bedford Light.

NBL: What community partnerships have you formed through the program?

KS: The scallop fishery here, they’re a great bunch … We went out with the first [camera] with Chris Wright on The Huntress. We just took the gear out, and I just had to prove that we could see scallops on the seafloor. And when we brought it back and showed the fishermen they were like, “Yeah, let’s support this.” I think for the first two years, it was just the university, a little bit of money from the state, and the fishermen donating their time and the vessel and stuff that got it going.

NBL: Has this method been implemented in other communities?

KS: For our scallop survey, since 2015 we’ve also been working with the Canadian Scallop Fishing Association, and so we surveyed the Canadian resource, we surveyed the U.S., and we’ve done a couple of exploratory surveys down in Argentina. In other places, people are trying various things, but some scallops aren’t so photographic friendly and bury themselves, like the sculpts over in Europe. And so that’s a little more challenging to use the camera stuff. 

NBL: How does your open-ended trawling net facilitate your groundfish research?

KS: With something like cod, where they’re really worried about the abundance and the numbers, you want to sample more of the seafloor to get a better idea what they are, but you don’t want to kill them. So the idea is that we have a camera and can count them [as they swim through the net] and it’s equivalent to closing the net and dumping it on the deck. 

NBL: What hopes do you have for the future of this work?

KS: I’m hoping that people know, both the government but also the industry and concerned citizens, that at SMAST we work with a state university, we’re here to help solve problems and provide scientific information on these issues. There’s some big issues facing the marine environment. I’m hoping as the dean that we really have [an impact], and also I hope that people will consider coming to us for their graduate work.

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