Investing in fisheries science for management success
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.