Investing in fisheries science for management success

Cooperative research in action: A Massachusetts industry-based cod survey (photo credit: MA Division of Marine Fisheries).

To me, fisheries management often feels like looking across the Grand Canyon at the beckoning but unreachable other side. Everyone has a shared goal for management but no idea how to really make it happen or who should make it happen. Recent comments on some TalkingFish.org posts echo the frustration often expressed – by fishermen and NGOs alike – with the inability of fisheries science to meet management needs. Contrary to those comments, however, I can’t think of a single organization or individual involved in fishing who would disagree that scientific understanding and limit setting should be the foundation for fisheries management. I also can’t think of anyone who would propose that the best available science we currently have is the best science can do for far too many stocks.

The problem seems to be that few in the industry except those who are in successful and substantially sustainable fisheries—sea scallops come quickly to mind—are willing to make the direct investments in science, R&D, and monitoring necessary to produce the reliable fishery data streams and fishing technologies that will allow us to manage fisheries well in real time.  Therefore, in order to meet the demands of successful fisheries management, we need federal dollars invested in fisheries science.

This is uniquely a fishy issue. With the exploitation of other public resources like range lands, national forests or mineral resources, extensive data development and on-going industry-financed monitoring are considered the price of admission that has to be paid before economic development of these resources in addition to resource rents and royalties to help support the federal program directly. With fisheries management, the operating assumption out on the water for many is that no restrictions on catch should ever apply until the government can prove that there is a problem and that there should be no rents to the government ever. This approach is backwards and, together with the open access systems so beloved by still too many fishermen, has led to chronic underperformance and widespread economic and social pain as stock after stock approaches collapse before anything resembling real management or stewardship shows up.

My own experience is that a fisherman’s sense of the health of a fishery depends on the day of the week, the results of his or her last trip, and sun spot activity. Commercial fishermen who have been studying the seas for decades are routinely surprised by the unpredictable behaviors or patterns of fish. Climate change and pollution have simply added new unknowns to that historic uncertainty. I’ve yet to take a charter trip where the captain has promised me that I will catch my bag limit of fish.

Call me old fashioned, but I believe the future of fisheries lies in better science, not better story telling. Getting there requires everyone to push hard in that same direction because there are many conflicting demands for scarce federal dollars and the flow of funding often goes where the greatest political rewards and the least uncertainty are. Unfortunately, fisheries science often doesn’t fit that political bill, and the mistrust and disagreements that persist among fishermen, managers, and conservation groups doesn’t help to make it a more attractive funding target.

Some float the notion that groups like Pew or EDF oppose fixing the problems of “extreme data deficiency” because of some implied nefarious plot against American fishermen – but this is just twaddle. The opposition by conservationists (whether they happen to be fishermen or not) to recent proposed legislation that purports to require good science in fisheries is based on the simple truth that that legislation has nothing to do with producing good science. It just allows more fish to get slaughtered under the rhetorical mantle of promoting “good science.” Catch shares are another false trail as far as getting better science: they have nothing to do necessarily with good or bad science. They are just another management tool that some fishermen want and some fishermen hate. At the end of the day, that’s for the fishermen and the regional fishery management councils to work out and doesn’t belong in a discussion about counting fish better.

We don’t need new legislation to fund better data collection or better science; we just have to adequately fund the existing science lines in NOAA’s annual appropriations, set agency staffing at the levels necessary to allow NOAA to do the job that Congress has set out for it and that healthy US fisheries require, and pump significantly more money into fishermen-designed gear R&D work. Every conservation group I know and the fishing groups focused on serious improvements have supported such increases in fishery funding with Congressional appropriators year in and out. TalkingFish.org readers and commenters who want to see stronger fishery science should add their voices to that chorus. Without such data, more reliable science predictions, and improved fishing practices coming from industry and government investments, no one’s interests are being served.


5 Responses to Investing in fisheries science for management success

  • Henry Hauch says:

    Here is a eral simple solution to a real big problem. Science Based Data….Reliable, Current, Accurate, Complete, science based data is in short supply. This leads MOST fish stocks to be managed with little more than ‘Guesswork’, which is simply unacceptable! Yes It takes maney to perform comprehensive stock assesments, and NOAA does have a lot of money to spend. Unfortionatly NOAA’s priorities is not in Science Based data Collection, but rather in Market Based Management schemes. The money being spent and directed towards these Catch Share schemes, through direct investment, subsidized management cost (above the 3% cap), and through grants, leave enough money to collect Science Based Data for the 75% of stocks managed by NOAA that currently have ZERO data to manage with! NOAA has spent $100 million alone in the last 3 1/2 years on direct investment, and much more through grants, includingthe recently redirected tarriff funds that are supposed to go to fishery science and reserch. In fact NOAA’s director, Jane Lubchenco, former EDF vice chair, and Catch Share advocate, has since she has been in office, redirected funds FROM fishery science and research, and spent them on Catch Shares! Fishermen are calling for Science Based Mandated, which would force NOAA fishery managers, the NMFS to collect the data needed to do so, but unfortionatly some ENGO’s, Pew and EDF included are publicly OPPOSING such Science Based Mandates in US fishery laws! The “Best Avalible science” has failed fisheries and fishermen, and its time to be fixed. Its time to make Science Based Management manditory, and Catch Shares, which do nothing for conservation, and who’s very spending is hurting science based management…to end!

    • Peter Shelley (CLF) says:

      Again, the gulf…in this case fueled by factual inaccuracies. I know for a fact that the new “direct investments” that NOAA/NMFS have directed to groundfish management in New England have gone to … wait for it… data collection through an expanding observer monitoring program because the recreational and commercial fishermen in the region don’t have to pay for this in return for their harvest privileges (and that’s only for about 30% of the commercial boats). The rest of any special funding as far as I know—-I’m sure Captain Hauch will correct me here if I’m wrong–is going directly to the fishermen who are catching 99% of all the groundfish to help them with their operations and get as many of them through some really tough times as possible. If NOAA and NMFS has had to shift funding around its national accounts to deal with the constant real and imagined blowups in the regions with particular fisheries, perhaps it is because they don’t have sufficient overall funding. It certainly would be interesting to understand the basis by which Captain Hauch asserts that this allegedly “purloined” funding would otherwise allow data collection sufficient to support real management of all the unknown categories of fish. Is there one objective analysis that even remotely supports his claim? We’ve run those numbers ourselves and the comparison is not even close. And finally, CLF and other conservation groups agree as noted that we should have science-based fisheries management. The bigger question is why have so many fisheries that have been allowed to stay open without it. Of course, this is all besides the point; it is much more fun to stand on opposite shores and yell at each other.

      • Henry Hauch says:

        Editor’s Note: This comment has been edited for content so that it is in compliance with the TalkingFish.org comment policy, which does not allow “Long-winded discourses that do not contribute original thoughts to the debate.”

        Market Based Management has allowed the fisheries to be managed by, well what is economically important, the market, and the Science has suffered. Monitors only report what is caught, or landed, and the majority of this is being paid for by the taxpayer anyway, so why use Catch Shares to jsutify it? What is missing is the majority of Biomass numbers, recreational landing numbers and recreational participant numbers. There is no way to determine a CPUE without this is there? Unfortionatly the NMFS continues to do so with little more than guesswork. And despite not having this very basic and much needed data to manage the fisheries in a science based manner, they keep spending hundreds of millions on a ‘New and Novel’ scheme that manages fishermen rather than fisheries.

        • Peter Shelley (CLF) says:

          Captain Hauch certainly hits the target in observing that recreational landings (and catch!) numbers are missing from the equation and can make fishery abundance modeling even more of a guess-timate. In New England, with Gulf of Maine cod, the recreational catch looks now to be one of the major components in the missing mortality that causes the models to poorly predicate abundance of that species. What would be helpful would be if Capt. Hauch made some serious proposals about how to fix that problem, something that he probably knows a great deal about given his involvement in the recreational industry. Catch shares, alas, are just another red herring meant to distract from the real problems of underestimation of recreational catch.

  • Thaddeus Bigelow says:

    In March 2010 NOAA provided an accounting of the funds they spent on sectors. About $10 million of the $47 million in 2009 and 2010 were provided for monitoring expenses. This is about half what was spent for sector support. About $3 million went to enforcement, another $2 million to admin needs, a pile to cooperative research. Not a single line item for assessments.


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