|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?