Opinion

Uncertain Science Isn’t to Blame for Groundfish Crisis

The NEFMC approved a high-risk 400 metric ton harvest level for Georges Bank yellowtail flounder. Photo Credit: NOAA

Imagine this: you are flying in the fog into a range of mountains that rise more than a thousand feet. Your altimeter tells you that you are flying at 1,100 feet, but you also know that the manufacturing specifications for your altimeter tell you that you could actually be anywhere between 500 feet and 1,700 feet. Any prudent pilot would either turn around or fly conservatively at, say, 1,700 feet or even higher.

Imagine another situation: you are trying to fly to a particular location and you have a range of routes to choose from. Some options have a 75% or higher chance of success but require short-term sacrifices. Other options won’t be such a struggle, but the prospects of reaching your goal are no better than 50%.  If reaching that destination matters, then choosing a route that is as likely to fail as succeed is irrational.

Yet such practices are routine for New England groundfish managers. When they set specific harvest levels for cod, for example, they are flying in the fog knowing their altimeter is not precise. And when they develop plans for rebuilding cod to healthy levels, they knowingly pick options that are calculated to have just a 50% chance of success.

It hasn’t worked out well for the groundfishermen or the fish. My metric for this failure is simple: in 1990, cod, haddock, and yellowtail flounder were the major fish stocks and were badly overfished. Today—except for the theoretical horde of Georges Bank haddock that no one seems able to catch—cod, haddock, and yellowtail flounder are still overfished with no near-term prospects of rebuilding.

Recently, industry leaders and others have been blaming the scientists and “bad predictions” for the sorry state of New England groundfish.

From the helm of an individual fishing boat, anger at the science is understandable. Most fishermen, like most people, assume that after the rancorous council process is over, the harvest levels have been set at a proper level so that the brighter future of more fish they have been promised becomes reality. When the situation just keeps getting worse, it is not a surprise that they are frustrated and angry and, in too many cases, out of work.

The real issue is not whether there is uncertainty in fisheries management science. Of course there is, and the more you get into the weeds of fishery management science the more the numerous uncertainties reveal themselves. Scientists still discover radically new things about fish that they have been studying since the 1800s.

The real issue is how managers choose to deal with the uncertainty that is inherent in fisheries management. In New England, by and large, they deal with it badly.

When the fishery science says the assessment altimeter has a broad range of possible truths with equal levels of certainty and the managers pick a middle number, and when the managers knowingly set harvest levels that have no better than a 50% chance of success notwithstanding bad results year after year, who should be held responsible when fish stocks don’t rebound? The science?

Groundfish scientists are neither stupid nor people of bad will. These same modelers have routine success in assessing many other fisheries in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic using the same models and the same mindsets. Some assumptions about groundfish, however, seem to be consistently wrong. The number of fish being killed every year is one such assumption. More than one fisherman has told me that many more fish die as unrecorded bycatch in New England fishing nets than the scientists estimate.

On the other hand, I don’t think the scientists should be taken off the hook for their failure to correct the persistent bias their assessments have to overestimate population levels and underestimate fishing mortality. This bias allows managers to rationalize overfishing and would be intolerable in most industries.

Nevertheless, if the groundfishermen in New England are driven out of business because the managers are not exercising appropriate caution in the face of documented uncertainty, it is the management that is at fault, not the science. If managers chose to fly into the mountains in a fog and assume their altimeters are more accurate than the manufacturers tell them, and if they chose routes that only have a 50% chance of success, then no one should be surprised if they fly into the side of a mountain.

The tragedy is that they carry the fates of so many decent fishing families and fishing communities with them.

 


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