Fisheries Scientists across the Yellow Line?

In discussions about how to set catch limits for yellowtail flounder some scientists may have crossed the line separating pure science from policy making.  

Effective fisheries management rests upon objective guidance from the scientists serving on the Fishery Management Council’s Scientific and Statistical committee. First and foremost, these scientists are charged with recommending an Acceptable Biological Catch (ABC) for each of the managed stocks. This means finding a number of fish that can be safely removed by fishing without jeopardizing the population and the production of fish over the long-term; a sustainable harvest amount taking into account the biology of the particular species, its current condition and all the various scientific uncertainties. This purely scientific enterprise is directed at finding a catch level that can be supported biologically so that fish populations are not harmed nor the people that depend upon them. The answer to this biological question does not depend upon future market conditions or how the availability of a particular population will or will not influence a fisherman’s business plan. It is a question of science.

The work of the scientific and statistical committee is crucially important and must not be allowed to bleed into the management arena where decisions are made about what to do given a particular acceptable biological catch. The line between science and management is admittedly hazy at times but any scientist accepting the responsibility of serving on a scientific and statistical committee must be particularly attentive to this line and refrain from indulging in management under the guise of science.

In the case of Georges Bank yellowtail flounder discussed last Friday, the scientific and statistical committee was lured way across the yellow line. The well-intended but misdirected speech by the Mayor of New Bedford at the committee meeting may have contributed to this. Several scientists went beyond recommending an acceptable biological catch and attempted to advise the Council’s managers on management. They argued that the catch of yellowtail should only be allowed if it is accidental catch – bycatch caught while pursuing other species. This is a management call and is irrelevant in a biological context. A dead fish is a dead fish – it does not matter what kind of fishing kills the fish. It is the job of the managers to decide how each year’s quota will be allocated for fishing, not the scientists. Unwittingly or not, several scientists were tacitly advocating for allocating yellowtail to fisheries that need it as a bycatch allowance (e.g., for scallop fishing), at the expense of other fisheries that fish directly for yellowtail as part of the multi-species groundfishery. This is not appropriate.

While the legal mandate for the scientific and statistical committee does contemplate possible scientific advice on social and economic impacts of management measures, this does not mean crafting or recommending measures to the Council. The Council did not present measures to the committee and no socioeconomic scientific analyses were done by the committee.

Fortunately, the Council is not obliged to follow management advice offered by the scientific and statistical committee. Nevertheless, extended discussion of this sort erodes confidence in what is supposed to be a scientific effort to determine acceptable biological catch levels and to provide guidance on other matters of science. The New England Fishery Management Council has an outstanding scientific and statistical committee. The chair of the committee would be well advised to rein in scientists who are tempted by management, pressured by politics, or just can’t see the yellow line.


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