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Industry sponsored research; what’s in it for you?
By Nils E. Stolpe
GSSA Communications Director
from Vol. 2 of Seafood Matters
published by Garden State Seafood Association

We’ve lived with the Magnuson Act and its various amendments for over twenty years. We’ve lived with increasingly rigorous and increasingly restrictive fishing controls for well over ten years. In that time we’ve all become familiar with the managers enthusiasm for discounting fishermen’s claims that stocks are in better shape than the scientists represent or that restrictions on fishing are too stringent. They generally write off industry claims by saying they are based on “anecdotal information” and not on “real science.” Since the inception of the present management system, the difference between implementing management strategies based on what the scientists have inferred statistically rather than on what fishermen have observed and reported as the actual state of affairs in the oceans has cost the industry, coastal communities and the U.S. economy hundreds of millions of dollars. But this is justified, say the supporters of the present management system, because the scientists are basing their estimates, their predictions, and their onerous management measures on the best data that is available. Unlike the fishermen, the conventional wisdom insists, they aren’t influenced by personal financial interests, only by what their best available science tells them is so.

But just how objective are their decisions? How accurate are their data? How reflective of real conditions in the ocean are their assessments? And how good is their science?

It wouldn’t be much of a revelation to a lot of people in the industry, or a lot of observers of the fishery management system, that there has not been a lot of industry faith in the science underlying many fishery management decisions. Exacerbating this is the growing reliance by managers on the so-called precautionary principle; where if they don’t know the actual status of a fishery, they will assume that it’s the worst that can be attributed to the available data and manage accordingly. The fact that, as reported in Commercial Fisheries News and National Fisherman, so many lawsuits have been filed against the National Marine Fisheries Service (or the Secretary of Commerce) is as good a testament to this lack of faith as we need.
But, as useful a tool as a lawsuit is for forcing the management system to respond the way it was designed to rather than the way insufficient or inadequate or inaccurate data distorts it, industry groups and individuals are increasingly resorting to what can be an equally effective and less contentious alternative. Instead of relying on inadequate science, they are providing the type of research that demands proper – and usually much less restrictive - management.

One of the best cases we have for how effective this strategy can be is that of the sea scallop fishery off New England and the Mid-Atlantic. A little over a year ago the sea scallop fleet was being threatened with an imminent reduction to 70 days that they were to be allowed to fish in the coming year. This meager allotment of days was based on a determination by the scientists in charge that the sea scallop stocks were severely depleted in most of the ocean and that in three large areas off New England that were closed to all fishing with bottom-tending gear, any permitted scallop fishing would further damage the stocks of depleted groundfish species.

Seeing economic ruin just over the horizon, knowing that the scallop stocks weren’t in as bad shape as the managers thought, and believing that there were a lot of scallops in the closed areas that could be caught without further damaging the groundfish stocks, a group of scallopers from New Bedford and Fairhaven, Massachusetts, banded together to form the Fisheries Survival Fund. They collected some money from members and other scallopers, hired independent researchers – most notably Dr. Brian Rothschild from the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth – and set out to prove the scientists and the managers wrong. After an excessive amount of governmental wrangling they succeeded in putting scientists and technicians on their own boats and had them survey side-by-side with the NMFS vessel that had produced the previous survey showing severely depleted scallop stocks. To make a long story as short as possible, the Fisheries Survival Fund won. For a total investment of under a quarter of a million dollars spread out among various researchers and consultants the scallopers and the Fisheries Survival Fund proved there were more scallops than previously believed and succeeded in getting one of the three closed areas opened to the entire fleet for limited scalloping. The allowable catch (which would be determined by the yellowtail flounder bycatch) was a maximum of almost ten million pounds of scallops. With an average price of $5 a pound to the boat, the industry has gotten a return of up to $50 million for an investment of under $250 thousand. And as a bonus, industry efforts have put the groundwork in place for future cooperative research that should guarantee better data, better assessments and better scalloping in the future.

Note: as of October 7 the scallop fleet had caught 43% of the allowable scallops and 62% of the allowable yellowtail flounder, indicating that they will likely take at least 7 million pounds of scallops before the area is closed again.

While sea scallops provide the most dramatic example of the industry reaping the rewards of financially and politically supporting fisheries research, it is by no means the only one. The shrimp industry has been funding its own research focused on bycatch and TEDs for over a decade, and Blue Water Fishermen’s Association, a longliner’s group, has had a biologist on staff. Several years ago members of the surf clam fishery commissioned Dr. Eric Powell at Rutgers University to look at the sampling and assessment mechanisms in their fishery. Dr. Powell’s work resulted in a significant increase in the quota the fishermen were allowed to take. He is currently involved in a similar effort in the squid fishery. When an anti-fishing group started pushing to list the barndoor skate as an “endangered” species, an ad hoc industry group commissioned a Canadian fisheries scientist, Dr. Trevor Kenchington (who is also working on scallop management for the industry), to review the original “research” which formed the basis of the proposed listing. His review indicated that the proposed listing wasn’t supported by any of the available survey results (such a listing could force massive restrictions on how and where a large part of the Mid-Atlantic and New England fleet operates).

And, even as this is being written, fishermen, docks and exporters involved in the monkfish fishery have retained the services of Dr. Ray Hilborn to review the assessment of the monkfish stocks. This fishery, which the National Marine Fisheries Service was encouraging fishermen to enter a few years ago to take pressure off other fisheries, has become one of the largest in the Northeast. There have been no restrictions placed on it since it started, and now the managers are claiming that it is severely overfished and are in the process of shutting much of it down. Not seeing the drastic declines in numbers that the managers claim, and not making any headway with their “anecdotal” observations that the management system has become so adept at disregarding, the industry has brought in its own expert.

It’s obvious that any investment that the industry makes in better science is going to be paid back in the form of better management – even if it takes a significant amount of political pushing to convince the management establishment to accept outside research. But why should the industry pay for it? Right now, the most obvious reason is that the National Marine Fisheries Service is taking care of so many other priorities – including defending itself from 60 or so lawsuits – that it can’t afford to collect and process adequate data for every fishery now under management. And then, quoting fisheries scientist and industry consultant Dr. Frank Hester in a letter in October Commercial Fisheries News, “NMFS (the National Marine Fisheries Service) knows that fishery management is a scientific and a political process. What it does wrong is to pervert the scientific process to direct the political process in support of NMFS’ policy decisions…. The agency follows a pattern of using assessments in support of policy, rather than basing policy on proper assessments.” Reputable research carried out by respected scientists is the only way to avoid this sad and expensive state of affairs, and if industry members don’t foot the bill, who will?