Sunday, March 27, 2016
One of the joys of writing a blog is that once you let your thoughts loose on the Internet, you never know where they will land.
You always hope that wherever your words alight, they have a chance to take root in open, fertile minds, where they can contribute to worthwhile debate. In the two years that I’ve been a blogger, my essays have been read by many people not only here in the United States, and in many places throughout the world. Over that time, I’ve had the privilege of exchanging ideas with anglers, scientists, regulators, legislators and others concerned with the fate of many different fisheries.
Of course, I’ve also run into my share of boors, loudmouths and trolls.
The latest example came a couple of days ago, in response to a piece that I wrote for the Marine Fish Conservation Network, and reprinted on this site. The topic was winter flounder, and made specific reference to my 30-plus years of experience with that species on Long Island’s Great South Bay.
In response to what I had written, someone named Mike Paladino wrote
“Your [sic] a disgrace. Your scientific bullshit is putting our sea bass fishery in the toilet.”
At first glance, that comment didn’t seem to have much to do with winter flounder, but first impressions can be deceiving.
When you look a little harder, it was very relevant, indeed.
The first thing that you need to know is that there is a Captain Mike Paladino who operates party boats on the western South Shore of Long Island. It’s not clear that’s who wrote the comment, as “Mike Paladino” is not really an uncommon name, but it’s certainly possible. You also need to know that just a couple of days before the comment was posted, I attended a meeting of New York’s Marine Resources Advisory Council, where black sea bass were discussed. At that meeting, I opposed regulations favored by some party boat captains from the western South Shore of Long Island…
So that sort of explains why a comment about sea bass showed up in response to a blog about flounder; it doesn’t, however, explain why the comment was relevant to the flounder themselves.
The key lies in the phrase “scientific bullshit.”
For as I had explained in that blog, as early as the mid-1980s, biologists in New York and elsewhere began to voice some concerns for the health of winter flounder stocks, and began suggesting that regulations were needed to prevent a problem.
Those concerns were driven by science.
However, the party boat fleet didn’t want to see any restrictions put in place, because they might discourage customers and so reduce the boats’ incomes. They didn’t want fisheries managers to base their decisions on “scientific bullshit,” but rather on the party boats’ economic concerns.
In that case, they got their way.
There really aren’t any winter flounder around anymore…
Black sea bass are in a lot better shape. Biologists believe that stock size is 102% of the target level—right about where they want it to be.
The last benchmark stock assessment failed to pass peer review, but a team of scientists led by Jason McNamee of the Rhode Island Division of Fish and Wildlife devised a way to regulate harvest that will actually allow the annual catch limit to be increased by 20% in 2016.
The stock is healthy, and anglers are catching a lot of them. So many, in fact, that in states between New Jersey and Massachusetts, 2016 recreational landings are going to have to be reduced by 23%, compared to such landings in 2015, despite the 20% increase.
That’s the “scientific bullshit” that commenter Mike Palladino was apparently so upset about.
His upset is not atypical. When all is said and done, it is that dissatisfaction with “scientific bullshit” that lies at the root of most of our major fisheries debates.
Consider New England cod.
After a new, more accurate stock assessment was performed on the Gulf of Maine stock in 2011, it was clear that cod harvests would have to be cut back sharply. John Bullard, the regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, said plainly,
“The stock is in free-fall.”
That was mainly because the New England Fishery Management Council had managed to avoid the “scientific bullshit” for years, and instead continued to manage all New England groundfish for the largest harvest, resulting in the largest possible short-term profit, that the law would allow.
But ignoring all that “scientific bullshit” has consequences, for as noted by Peter Baker, a fisheries specialist for the Pew Charitable Trusts,
“The cod collapse is largely due to a long history of risky management decisions that failed to rein in chronic overfishing, did not keep accurate track of how many fish were caught or killed, and did not do enough to protect ocean habitat.”
Even so, there are plenty of folks who still want to take a different approach.
In the Gulf of Mexico, the National Marine Fisheries Service, relying heavily on “scientific bullshit,” is successfully rebuilding the red snapper stock.
In the early 1990s, the population had fallen so low that its spawning potential ratio (SPR)—the difference between its current spawning potential and that of an unfished stock—had fallen below 3%; today, that ratio has increased to about 13%, and is halfway to the 26% SPR target that, according to biologists, will indicate a full recovery.
In some ways, Gulf red snapper are a lot like black sea bass here on Long Island; they’re a structure-dependent species that congregate on pieces of hard bottom, wrecks, artificial reefs and the like, making them easy to find, and they’re rarely shy about hitting any attractive bait or lure that passes by their noses. Thus, they can appear to be a lot more abundant than they are, at least until a lot of the fish are cleaned off a particular piece of structure by heavy fishing pressure.
Harvest of both species is also governed by the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which requires that
“Conservation and management measures shall be based upon the best scientific information available.”
In other words, federal fisheries managers actually have to pay attention to all of that “scientific bullshit” that Mike Paladino dislikes.
It turns out that, down in the Gulf of Mexico, some organizations who seem to share Mr. Paladino’s view of science-based fisheries management have banded together under the banner of the Center for Coastal Conservation to create a recreational red snapper fishery where such “scientific bullshit” does not apply.
Instead, they are seeking federal legislation that would strip the National Marine Fisheries Service of all authority to manage red snapper, and turn such authority over to state regulators. In doing so, they would be able to escape a management system dominated by “scientific bullshit” and replace it with a system dominated by politics, profit and similar short-term considerations.
They would make it possible for the red snapper’s future abundance to more closely resemble that of winter flounder and cod.
Worse, they have endorsed H.R. 1335, legislation that would amend Magnuson-Stevens in a way that would allow federal fisheries managers on every coast, regardless of species, to pay less attention to “scientific bullshit” and give greater consideration to “cultural and economic needs” of fishermen and the angling and boatbuilding industries.
If they had their way, cod and winter flounder could be the model for the way all of our federal fisheries are managed, without much—or any—“scientific bullshit” at all…
Mike Paladino isn’t going to like to read this, but I’m not going to jump onto the bandwagon. When advising New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation as a member of the Marine Resources Advisory Council, I am going to continue to base my recommendations on “scientific bullshit.”
I hope that fisheries managers here in New York, and across the nation, continue to do so as well.
For in many ways, salt water fisheries management is still a new science, with new information constantly becoming available. There is still much that we don’t know.
Limited by the available data, we remain far too ignorant of far too many things.
That is unfortunate, but excusable for now.
However, calling the information we do have “scientific bullshit,” and not using it to manage our fisheries is simply abhorrent.
For willful ignorance is not excusable at all.