Sunday, February 15, 2015


If you’ve spent much time around fisheries management debates, one thing becomes pretty clear:  All of the folks speaking up at the hearings, along with the folks on the councils and management boards, are pretty sure that they know the right answers.

And they “know” that all of the other guys’ answers are wrong.

It’s not hard to think of examples.

Up in New England, we see a never-ending debate between biologists trying to conserve cod stocks and fishermen trying to catch them.

In the Gulf of Mexico, anglers have spent years fighting commercial fishermen, and more recently the for-hire fleet, over their share of red snapper.

And all along the striper coast, we have the current battle between recreational anglers and the for-fleet, who have different opinions about striped bass conservation.

Such thinking isn’t limited to fisheries issues.  Last week, while I was at work, I received an e-mail inviting me to read a blog written by someone called Rebel Brown, which had the absolutely awful title “When Leaders Wear Rose-colored Business Glasses.”

Despite its title, the blog itself wasn’t awful at all, and applied to far more than business—such as, for example, marine resources debates.

The premise of Brown’s essay is that we tend believe what we want to believe, regardless of whether it’s true.  She notes that

“Neuroscience has proven that when we are presented with information or insights that threaten our feeling good about ourselves or our situation, we bring out the rose-colored glasses. Our unconscious mindware proceeds to distort our reality, changing what we see and even fill in the blanks with evidence designed to reduce the threat and make us feel good.
To put that into a fisheries context, New England trawlers are really convinced that there are plenty of cod on the banks; they believe that the science is wrong.

If they believed anything else—say, that they’re only catching a lot of cod on Stellwagen Bank because the fish are bunched up there feeding on herring, and are scarce elsewhere in the region—they would have to make an unpleasant choice between cutting back harvest and making less money, or knowingly overfishing the stock and driving it toward commercial extinction.

Since either of those alternatives could only bring them discomfort, they have naturally chosen a third opinion—convincing themselves that the fish are still there and the scientists have to be wrong.

It’s not only commercial fishermen who think in that manner.  

I spent a number of years listening to very bright and very decent people complaining that federal regulators were burdening red snapper anglers in the Gulf of Mexico with “unfair” regulations. 

It was interesting to be an “outsider” who knew the people, understood the management system and had even participated in the fishery from time to time, but didn’t live on the Gulf and wasn’t emotionally or physically involved with the fishery on a regular basis. 

Although they would never admit it, and would be embarrassed if they ever did, my then-colleagues sounded just like the codfishermen up in Gloucester; they thought that they were the “good guys,” beset by bad science, overzealous regulators and a conspiracy led by conservation groups who wanted to drive them out of the fishery.  They could never understand that, to me, they sounded no different than any other fish hogs wanting to increase their kill.

Why the difference in perspective?  Brown noted

"the human program that drives us to prove ourselves right. That program is even stronger when it comes to protecting our beliefs about our businesses and ourselves in times of threat, or opportunity!

"This instinctual response is aided by another one. In any situation, our unconscious mind is wired to fill in the details, details that make the situation more the way we want it to be. Even if those details are inaccurate. For example, when our self-image is threatened, our unconscious mind will fill in the data it needs to create the reality we want and need.

"The challenge is this. If we’re filling in what we want to believe, and tinting reality to our favor – how do we have any hope of seeing what’s really happening around us?

And isn’t that all often the problem with fisheries issues?  People denying the truth until a collapsed stock or suddenly oppressive—if necessary—regulations catch them by seeming surprise?

So folks try to tell us we don’t have a problem; the striped bass are merely “offshore,” weakfish are just in “a cycle” and winter flounder are not overfished.

It’s all what they want to believe.

Brown suggests that anyone wishing to step out of their personal blind spots in order to better view reality take three meaningful steps.  They need to make an active effort to prove themselves wrong, they need to view issues from multiple perspectives and they need to get outside of their comfort zone and talk to people with opposing views.

Those aren’t easy things to do, but having done (and failed to do) all of them at various times over the years, I believe that they are absolutely necessary if we’re to get to the truth that lies at the core of fisheries debates.

Trying to prove yourself wrong is probably the easiest approach to master, because in the end, it’s all about fact, not opinions.  Brown suggests that a person

take any assumption or belief and go exploring. Look for evidence that says you’re wrong. Stretch your mind to see beyond information that agrees with you and find the information that says you are just plain inaccurate.

What she describes is really the essence of science, approaching any situation with a skeptical mind open to the possibility that our interpretations of what we observe may be wrong.

As an attorney, I learned long ago that the best way to prepare to make comments before a regulatory body or present a case in front of a court is to first try to write your opponent’s comments or brief.  Your opponent’s strongest arguments will be the weakest points in your case, and it you can’t craft an even stronger counterpoint, it’s time to stop and ask yourself what to do next.

On the other hand, if you can easily dismiss the best that the other side can offer, your argument is probably pretty strong.

Yet science alone doesn’t decide fisheries issues; the management process is highly politicized, and to succeed in the management arena, it helps to understand what everyone wants.

Normally, everyone wants more than they’re likely to get, but the key to a reasonable outcome is to listen to folks, and figure out what they actually need, and what they can live without.

Striped bass provide a good example.

For years, many anglers have wanted to end the commercial fishery, and make striped bass a “gamefish.”  In some states they have succeeded; in the rest, they currently lack the political support needed to get the job done.  Yet they still keep banging their heads against the same big brick wall.
Instead of doing that, they should be looking at things from a commercial perspective, seeking shared concerns. 

Here in New York, a large percentage of the commercial striped bass fishermen use rod and reel rather than nets of any sort.  When they see a hundred dead striped bass afloat in the wake of the trawler that killed them after boxing its 21-fish “bycatch” allowance, commercial “pinhookers” are, by and large, as disgusted as any angler.  They’re also unhappy when gillnetters kill loads of fish at one time, flooding the markets and driving down prices for everyone.

If anglers looked at this situation from the pinhookers’ perspective, not only their own, they might work together to bring both trawls and gill nets under control.

But that doesn’t happen, largely because the groups do not talk.

Go to a fisheries hearing, and you’re likely to see factions assembled like street gangs fighting a turf war.  Each side applauds its own spokesmen, and often hoots in derision at opposing groups’ spokesmen, whom they view with disdain.

I will never forget a winter flounder hearing that ASMFC held here in New York, when the perennially obnoxious captain of a Huntington party boat, as part of his recorded comments, publicly derided the speaker before him for wearing a suit, which proved that such speaker could not have a clue about what was happening out on the water…

That’s not atypical in the tribal world of fisheries management, where each user group shares a faith comprised of the “facts” that they choose to believe, and zealously defends that faith against heretics and outsiders.  

Because they talk only to one another, such faith is constantly reinforced, those with other beliefs are generally shunned, and objective truth is largely irrelevant.

Once people stop listening to one another, it gets much harder to get anything done.

And the first step toward listening is to concede that there’s a chance that you might be wrong.

You can only find answers if you’re willing to question. 

And there’s no better place to start than questioning yourself, and all you believe.

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