|Jim O'Malley, former member of
the New England
Fisheries Management Council and Executive Director of the East Coast
Federation, has been involved in fisheries issues at the national and
level from the pre-Magnuson era. Definitely not a supporter of the
quo and always on the side of responsible commercial harvesting, his
take on the use - and misuse - of fisheries data is one that is shared
an ever-increasing number of industry observers.
Halifax, Nova Scotia
November 30, 1998
Just so that there is no possibility of misunderstanding, I should tell
you first that I am a representative of commercial fishermen, and their
advocate. The East Coast Fisheries Federation membership is centered in
the New England and Mid-Atlantic area of the US, and we fish everywhere
from the Gulf of Maine
and Georges Bank to Cape Hatteras and the Gulf of Mexico. The vessels
the organization are both “wetfish” boats, bringing in fresh fish every
days, and freezer trawlers. Most are in the range of 20-40 meters,
owner-operated, with crews of five or six. That information may
help you understand some of my remarks, as well as my attitudes.
It was said of Defense Secretary Robert MacNamara that his devotion to
mathematics clouded his vision. And whenever I hear a fishery scientist
proclaim that his analysis is “rigorous,” I am reminded of what John
Galbraith is reputed to have said once to a group of economists: that
the prestige of mathematics has given economics rigor, but alas, also mortis.
And the proposition that I put to you today is that the same condition
that Galbraith diagnosed in economics has infected the science with
which we attempt to comprehend the fisheries and the ocean environment
I am not suggesting to you that mathematics is not a useful tool. But
it has become the heart of the system, an intellectual bureaucracy, an
end in itself, and an excuse to defer investigation into far broader,
more important questions. Once other things are understood, mathematics
can help us refine that understanding, expand it, and perhaps even make
projections with it. And occasionally-- rarely, but occasionally--
mathematics helps us understand something that we did not understand at
But what has happened in our attempt to comprehend the oceans is that
mathematics has been elevated to a status which suppresses knowledge
and actually detracts from our efforts to acquire knowledge.
The best example I can give you of that is fishery management in the
United States today. Our recently-amended fishery law, the Sustainable
Fisheries Act, mandates that the fisheries be maintained at a level
which can continually produce maximum sustainable yield. But because
ecosystems and interrelationships are poorly understood, each
individual species has been thoroughly--perhaps I should say rigorously-- analyzed, and
regulations passed which attempt to
accomplish this maximum for each species. But appealing to the
mathematicians among you, I have to ask if it is possible to maximize
any equation for multiple variables simultaneously. Can you have an
ocean full of every kind of fish at the same time? Of course not. And
yet that does not deter anyone in fishery science or fishery
management. In the words of Jake Dykstra, we are all too busy
calculating our mismanagement to manage properly.
The absurdities and contradictions become Kafkaesque. For over a
decade, commercial fishermen have been told that the overfishing of
groundfish has resulted in an ecosystem on Georges Bank which became
dominated by elasmobranchs--dogfish and skates. Dogfish, especially, is
an omnivorous predator whose numbers have
severely retarded the rebuilding of groundfish. Now, under the new law,
are faced with the prospect that these elasmobranchs must be maintained
that same, grotesquely unbalanced level--because it is the maximum and
There are many, many similar examples. A few years ago, an organization
in the environmental industry successfully sued the US government over
groundfish--haddock, cod and flounder--on Georges Bank. When the
fishermen and the managers then proposed the things they knew would
work--large closed areas, gear restrictions and the like--the reply
seemed always to be that the proposals were not “quantifiable,” and
therefore unacceptable. And while the managers struggled to find
conservation rules for which measured estimates could be made, a
dislocated industry seriously depleted several other species which were
not regulated or protected at all. This occurred despite pleas from
fishermen for basic conservation measures to protect those other
species. We were not permitted to put in rules as basic
as minimum sizes until the mathematicians had completed their estimates
calculations. I stress that the problem was not mathematics per se, but the
place of idolatry we have given it.
And it is idolatry. Like any priesthood, it has developed its own
language, rituals and mystical signs to maintain its status, and to
keep a befuddled congregation subservient, convinced that criticism is
blasphemy. Late at night,
of course, many members of the scientific community will confess their
But in the morning, they reappear to preach the catechism once again.
The examples go on. We now try, in fishery management, to protect what
is called “essential fish habitat,” and this attempt is the clearest
proof I know that we have replaced understanding with mathematics. The
fact is, we know very little about the habits of fish. And so
“essential fish habitat” was designated by reviewing research data to
see where the fish have been found, and automatically assuming that, if
fish are there, it is “essential habitat” and if the fish are not
there, it is not essential.
That approach is roughly the equivalent of proclaiming that Essential
Human Habitat is a football stadium on Sunday afternoon, or perhaps a
traffic jam during commuter hours. After all, that’s where we find the
most people. Bedrooms and kitchens are not essential, because we don’t
see the aggregations of humans
there. Farmland becomes irrelevant. This is a clear misuse of what is
to be a scientific tool.
Most frightening of all, our complacent acceptance of this approach
shows that mathematics has become a substitute
for science. It has become a defense against an appropriate humility,
and a barrier to the acquisition of knowledge and understanding of our
ocean environments. My rancor is for the misuse of
mathematics, not a Luddite reaction based on my own ignorance of the
discipline. I have a great respect for mathematicians. And of course,
you did hear about the fishery biologist who didn’t know his phone
number, but he’d be happy to estimate it for you?
When used improperly, mathematics becomes a reason to accept
absurdity. We have been given a theoretical level of abundance in the
scallop fishery, based on time-honored models of fishery science. That
theoretical abundance that we are supposed to achieve is twice what has
ever been observed either by the fishermen or the scientists. That
maximum was based on what we did know about the growth rate of the
animal. But there was no possible way to calculate something called
“density dependence,” scallops so thick that they are literally
suffocating themselves, so the phenomenon was simply ignored in the
analyses. But those who have spent their lives on the ocean knew about
it, and they were right, as we are now discovering. Scallops smother
themselves long before they ever reach those theoretical levels of
Science, in my opinion, seeks the truth, is humble, and delights in the
search for answers. I become very suspicious when the questions
are dismissed out of hand because they do not fit into the present
techniques, and might prove those techniques to be inadequate. That is
cowardice of the first order. It is a refusal to say “I don’t know.” It
a demurral from the challenge of saying, “we don’t know, but let’s find
It is rigging the game, so that no question can ever be posed which
elicit those answers.
Examples abound, in fact. One of the most frustrating things that
fishermen encounter is a drastic change in “scientific” pronouncements
based on some minor change in the assumptions that go into the models
(and I use that word with some distaste). We have had several instances
when the estimate of resource abundance has tripled or quadrupled when
that has happened. More recently, some estimates have been replaced by
actual measurements, and the assessment again triples, scallops being
the most notable of these. This is by no means the reflexive howl of
some elements of the industry, “leave me alone, there’s plenty of
fish.” One of the most interesting battles in my area now has to do
with the mackerel resource. The industry is convinced that the
scientific estimates of abundance are horrifically inflated, and that
the allowable catch
should be only a quarter of what it is on the books.
I have seen quotas determined to the pound--when thousands of tons are
missing or appear without explanation. No one seems to care about the
reasons for these obviously-missing fish, or for their mysterious
appearance. We are too
busy attempting to work the new numbers into the models, no matter that
new numbers may clearly demonstrate the wrongness of the existing
the management strategies which are based on them.
This problem, of course, permeates society, academia, and government.
Things like crime statistics, assessments of our educational systems,
the quality of medical care, are all issues in society that we have
come to regard as things we understand through mathematics. They are
all symptomatic of this malaise, this deference to numerical oligarchy.
But haven’t you ever wondered, as I have, and the researchers evidently
have not, whether we can really rely
on these things? When I see some statistic about “promiscuity among
youth,” it is clear that only a mathematician would accept without
and dutifully report, what a teen-age boy says about his activities in
particular arena. The pseudo-sciences thrive and their practitioners
power, salaries and grant money behind a cloak of mathematics.
Nor is the private sector immune. How often have we heard the demise of
a perfectly good company summed up this way: “The bean-counters took
Worst of all, the malaise is codified. We are told in law and treaty
that we must base our decisions on the best scientific information
I have begun to think of it, and refer to it, as “the best and the
brightest” scientific information, with all that that expression
implies. I am, naturally, delighted when a fishery biologist bristles
at that phrase.
Criticism is never enough, of course. And there are significant
improvements that can be made. There are even signs that it may be
happening, just a little. We need to explore and develop alternatives
to both the way we acquire knowledge in the fisheries, and more
important, what we consider science
to be. And I maintain that mathematics is not knowledge, and may
not even be “scientific.” It is only mathematics.
We must discover the factors behind the rhythms of the sea. We need to
learn the broader truths, about predator-prey interactions, about
environmental shifts, meteorological phenomena, food competition in the
ecosystem. We pay great lip service to these ambitions, but any
progress toward their accomplishment is constantly hampered by the
criticism that they are not quantifiable. They do not lend themselves
to mathematical exercises.
There is, among the people who are on the ocean every day, an enormous
body of knowledge which is largely untapped. We have seen these things,
and cycles and fluctuations and anomalies. And for the purposes of
the fisheries wisely and productively, it is quite possible that the
tools may be a working set of post
hoc fallacies, combined with judgment,
experience and wisdom. The people who are on the ocean every day know
when one thing happens, another is sure to follow. Or maybe not--they
that too. They know it in their experience, their logbooks, their
memories. They know it from their fathers and from themselves. They
know what a cold winter means next year, or an active hurricane season.
They know that the abundance of one species is good reason to expect
the abundance or scarcity of another. And they sense cause and effect.
All too often, that knowledge is dismissed as “anecdotal,” and not of
use in management. And the irony hidden in language here is remarkable.
“Anecdotal” is derived from anekdotos,
meaning “not given out,” or “not published.” It does not mean
unreliable; it certainly does not mean unscientific, if you realize
that the word “science” itself comes not from any allusion to
calculation, but simply, “knowledge.” But mathematics has hijacked the
definition and position
of real science. Talk to anyone in the academic world, and ask what
happen if a graduate student submitted something like “The Voyage of
Beagle” or Bigelow and Schroeder’s “Fishes of the Gulf of Maine” as a
thesis. It would be rejected, and with disdain. Why? Because, no matter
bountiful and useful the knowledge--the science--it might contain, it
no calculations, no graphs, no analyses, and most especially, no
a wealth of wonderful information. Totally unacceptable.
We are, fortunately, seeing at least a little bit of movement in the
direction of assimilating that wealth of “empirical data” into fishery
not without considerable resistance. There are a few research fisheries
conducted now, aboard commercial vessels, financed by set-aside quotas
specifically to underwriting that research. And that research is
to finding the answers to questions which have been posed by those
on the ocean, not just gathering more statistically-valid data.
What is happening out there on the ocean, and why is it happening? What
will we do about it?
And that is perhaps the most important question of all. For management
purposes, for productivity and conservation, we need broader answers to
bigger questions. My most earnest proposal would be to prohibit the use
of decimal points in fishery management. That level of refinement is
neither useful nor legitimate. It is merely a game, an exercise, and
ultimately, an illusion.
We can do better than that. And we owe it to ourselves, to the ocean,
and especially to science itself, to assemble that great body of
knowledge, those millions of observations, and to use every tool,
including mathematics, to further our understanding of that knowledge.
Knowledge and understanding are
not the same. They may, in fact, be separated by a wide chasm.
Mathematics is neither knowledge nor understanding. It may be a useful
tool to help up bridge that gap. That is where it belongs, that is how
we should use it, and
we need to start now—before the bean-counters destroy us all.