From Science to Illusion:
Mathematics in Fishery Management
James O’Malley

(originally printed in Pacem in Maribus XXVI

Link to NJ Fishing Consumer Alert page Link to NJ Fishing Consumer Alert page
Jim O'Malley, former member of the New England Fisheries Management Council and Executive Director of the East Coast Fisheries Federation, has been involved in fisheries issues at the national and international level from the pre-Magnuson era. Definitely not a supporter of the status quo and always on the side of responsible commercial harvesting, his provocative take on the use - and misuse - of fisheries data is one that is shared by 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 in the organization are both “wetfish” boats, bringing in fresh fish every few 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 itself.

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 all before.

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, we are faced with the prospect that these elasmobranchs must be maintained at that same, grotesquely unbalanced level--because it is the maximum and therefore desirable.

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 and 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 doubts. 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 supposed 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 abundance.

Science, in my opinion, seeks the truth, is humble, and delights in the search for answers. I become very suspicious when the questions themselves are dismissed out of hand because they do not fit into the present analytical techniques, and might prove those techniques to be inadequate. That is intellectual cowardice of the first order. It is a refusal to say “I don’t know.” It is a demurral from the challenge of saying, “we don’t know, but let’s find out.” It is rigging the game, so that no question can ever be posed which would 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 the new numbers may clearly demonstrate the wrongness of the existing models or 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 today’s youth,” it is clear that only a mathematician would accept without question, and dutifully report, what a teen-age boy says about his activities in that particular arena. The pseudo-sciences thrive and their practitioners aggregate 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 over.”

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 available, but 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, these events and cycles and fluctuations and anomalies. And for the purposes of managing the fisheries wisely and productively, it is quite possible that the best 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 that when one thing happens, another is sure to follow. Or maybe not--they know 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 would happen if a graduate student submitted something like “The Voyage of the Beagle” or Bigelow and Schroeder’s “Fishes of the Gulf of Maine” as a master’s thesis. It would be rejected, and with disdain. Why? Because, no matter how bountiful and useful the knowledge--the science--it might contain, it has no calculations, no graphs, no analyses, and most especially, no models. Just 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 management, but not without considerable resistance. There are a few research fisheries being conducted now, aboard commercial vessels, financed by set-aside quotas dedicated specifically to underwriting that research. And that research is dedicated to finding the answers to questions which have been posed by those people 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.

Thank you.


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