Sunday, January 29, 2017
FISHERIES MANAGEMENT: LIVING IN A POST-TRUTH WORLD
For the past six months or so, some folks in the media have said that we’re all living in a “post-truth world.”
The Oxford Dictionaries, one of the most authoritative sources of words and their meanings, declared “post-truth” as their 2016 Word of the Year, and defined it as
“relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.
Based on that definition, fisheries management has existed in a post-truth world for a very long time, far before such a world was conceived by the general population.
Fisheries management is a science-based, data-driven process, but any time that new regulations are proposed, at least some of the affected fishermen will inevitably reject biologists’ conclusions, merely because such conclusions don’t mesh with the fishermen’s perceived interests and/or beliefs.
That’s true regardless of species or coast, although it’s possible that New England fishery managers have been living in a post-truth world a bit longer than the rest of us.
Nothing illustrates the post-truth world of fisheries management better than a 2014 stock assessment update of Gulf of Maine cod, and the reaction that such update provoked.
The news revealed by the update was dire.
“The Gulf of Maine Atlantic cod stock is overfished and overfishing is occurring. Spawning stock biomass…levels are the lowest ever estimated and are at 4% or 3% of the [proxy for spawning stock biomass that will produce maximum sustainable yield]. The 2013 fully selected fishing mortality…is more than 6 times greater than the [proxy for fishing mortality at maximum sustainable yield]. Fishing mortality is near all time highs despite the fact that fishery catches are at the lowest levels in the time series. The Gulf of Maine cod stock is in poor condition.”
In a truth-based world where public opinion was driven by objective facts, such a report would have driven everyone, including fishermen, to demand that managers impose regulations capable of stemming the decline and beginning the cod’s long road to recovery.
But in the post-truth world of fisheries management, just the opposite happened. Fishermen actually started arguing that the cod stock was increasing in size. According to the Portland Press Herald, fishermen believe
“that scientists are using a mathematical model that is ‘corrupted’ by the use of cod-landings data that does not take into account increasingly stringent regulations that make it harder for fishermen to catch cod…As a result, the smaller catch volumes represent the impact of those regulations rather than the numbers of cod.”
While scientists haven’t found any such flaw in the model, fishermen claim that they are seeing more cod. It is possible that some of them are; however, they’re not willing to accept that they may only be seeing more fish because
“When populations of schooling fish species, such as cod, plummet, the survivors ‘hyper-aggregate’ in a concentrated area, creating the impression of abundance there while vanishing everywhere else”
yet that is exactly what occurred off Newfoundland three decades ago, just before that stock collapsed and led to a moratorium that,twenty-five years after it was imposed, is just beginning to show some positiveresults.
Such facts do not persuade fishermen, who instead reinforce one another’s beliefs that their views are right, and the science is wrong.
But at least cod had the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act on their side, which requires fishery managers to rely on hard science, and not just fishermen’s beliefs, when preparing fishery management plans.
Southern New England lobster have not been so fortunate.
In 2009, a benchmark stock assessment found that the southern New England stock of American lobster had declined sharply, saying
“Current abundance of the [southern New England] stock is the lowest observed since the 1980s and exploitation rates have declined since 2000. Recruitment has remained low in [southern New England] since 1998. Given current low levels of spawning stock biomass and poor recruitment further restrictions are warranted.”
In response, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Atlantic Lobster Technical Committee investigated the causes and possible remedies for the southern New England stock’s decline, and in April 2010 released their report, Recruitment Failure in The Southern New England Lobster Stock. Such report found that the stock was “critically depleted,” and stated that
“Overwhelming environmental and biological changes coupled with continued fishing greatly reduce the likelihood of the [southern New England] stock rebuilding…
“In addition to environmental drivers, continued fishing pressure reduces the stock’s potential to rebuild, even though overfishing is currently not occurring…
“Given additional evidence of recruitment failure in [southern New England] and the impediments to stock rebuilding, the [Technical Committee] now recommends a 5 year moratorium on harvest in the [southern New England] stock area…”
That report was peer reviewed by a panel of independent experts. Two of the three panel members endorsed the Technical Committee’s recommendation for a 5-year moratorium, while the third, who was concerned about the socio-economic impacts of such a closure, recommended that effort be cut by at least 50-75%, and did not entirely dismiss the possibility of a complete closure.
Such were the objective facts.
”Mr. Grimshaw [a Connecticut lobsterman], no surprise, disagrees with the diagnosis and the remedy…
“What happened? He cites lots of things, including the resurgence of predators, like cod, stripers, dogfish, skate, bluefish and seals; the use of pesticides that many lobstermen still blame for the die-off a decade ago; and an oil spill off Rhode Island. Catches are down in part, he says, because there are fewer fishermen, and in part because of increasing size requirements for harvested lobsters…
“’It’s a multitude of things,’ Mr. Grimshaw said. ‘We play such a small factor, it’s not even funny. But we’re the only thing they can regulate. They can’t regulate water temperature, can’t regulate the fish stocks, can’t regulate the oil spills. They’re still spraying the pesticides. This is very speculatory [sic] science…”
Unlike federal fisheries managers, whose decisions are somewhat insulated from the post-truth world by Magnuson-Stevens, ASMFC resides squarely in a post-truth environment, where beliefs and emotion, rather than facts, can determine decisions.
And in the case of southern New England lobster, they have. Not only was the recommended moratorium never seriously considered, but effort, and landings, were never significantly contained. As Addendum XVII to Amendment 3 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for American Lobster, adopted after nearly two full years of debate, almost sheepishly admits
“The American Lobster Management Board first initiated this Addendum to reduce exploitation on the [southern New England] stock by 50 or 75% in order to initiate stock rebuilding in 2010. At the August 2011 Board meeting, the Board changed the document’s purpose to reduce exploitation by 10%. [emphasis added]”
Because that’s the sort of thing that can happen in a post-truth world, where facts don’t control the debate.
Yet even in such a world, the facts still determine the ultimate outcomes. In 2015, a new benchmark stock assessment for American lobster was released. It found that the southern New England stock
“declined steeply through the early 2000s to a record low level in 2013. Closer scrutiny reveals the inshore portion of the [southern New England] stock has clearly collapsed…It is believed the offshore area of [southern New England] depends on nearshore settlement as a source of recruits. Therefore, the offshore is also in jeopardy and the Technical Committee and [Independent Peer] Review Panel believe the stock has little chance of recovering unless fishing effort is curtailed…[B]y any reasonable standard, it is necessary to protect the offshore component of the stock until increased recruitment has been observed. [emphasis added]”
Again, the objective facts are clear.
The stock is still plummeting downhill.
But in ASMFC’s post-truth world, one of the managers’ first reactions wasn’t to accept the findings of the peer-reviewed stock assessment, but to question them, with David Simpson, Connecticut’s marine fisheries director, taking on the role of the disbelieving lobstermen and saying
“If I were an offshore fisherman, I’d want to know how close [the assessment] is to having it nailed that the faucet has been shut off inshore and the flow of water to the offshore fishery—you know, your fate is sealed.
“Is that really what is going on or is there some sort of dynamic out there that makes the offshore stock self-sustaining; so I think they really need that kind of information. Right now I think a lot of them feel like it is an inshore problem; it is not our problem.”
Five Management Board meetings have passed since the new benchmark assessment, which found that the inshore portion of the southern New England stock had “clearly collapsed” and that the offshore portion was “in jeopardy” was released. No concrete measures to curtail fishing effort have yet been made, although the Management Board has committed to creating an addendum that would “address” (but, by specific vote and amendment, not necessarily “minimize”) stock decline, and finally require binding regulations by June 1, 2019, nearly four years after the 2015 benchmark assessment sounded its dire warning.
For in a post-truth world, there is no need for urgency…
Although those two examples arose out of New England’s commercial fishery, it would be a serious mistake to assume that only New England fisheries, or only commercial fishermen, exist in a post-truth world.
Recreational red snapper fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico have led a post-truth existence for at least the past decade.
The problem is that, while the Gulf red snapper stock has come a long way from the late 1980s and early 1990s, when it was close to collapse, it is still very far from rebuilt. But fishermen who have never experienced a completely healthy red snapper stock are seeing more fish than they have ever seen before in their lifetimes, and mistake that increased abundance for a full recovery.
The science is clear.
A comprehensive, peer-reviewed stock assessment, which spanned over 1,100 pages of text and data, was released in 2013, and updated a year later.
Objective facts are not hard to find.
They tell fisheries managers that recreational fishermen catch a lot of red snapper and that, given the heavy angling pressure, restrictive regulations are necessary to prevent overfishing,
That didn’t go down well with “anglers’ rights” organizations and folks who sell bait and tackle, so instead of supporting science-based management, they are pushing hard for management that instead reflects their beliefs.
Such organizations have created and promoted a belief that, by taking away NMFS’ authority to manage red snapper and handing such authority over to the states, recreational fishermen will be able to kill more red snapper each year, without having any negative impact on the stock.
They convinced Congressman Garret Graves (R-Louisiana) to introduce legislation that would hand red snapper management authority over to the states. According to a press release issued by Coastal Conservation Association Louisiana, Graves has said
“For years, the federal government has restricted our anglers access to a public resource, limiting the ability of private citizens in South Louisiana and across the Gulf Coast to enjoy red snapper. When I was growing up, we could fish snapper year round; this year’s recreational season was just 10 days. Our state-based approach will eliminate failed fish management that saw only one weekend of red snapper fishing in federal waters, while preventing overfishing. [emphasis added]”
Exactly how the states can allow more fish to be killed, while still preventing overfishing, was never explained by the Congressman.
Folks living outside his post-truth world might suspect that no explanation was given because none exists; however, those who live a post-truth existence see no problem at all. Jeff Angers, President of the Center for Coastal Conservation (since renamed the Center for Sportfishing Policy) endorsed Congressman Graves’ actions, saying
“For too long, the federal government has relied on outdated and inaccurate information to unfairly limit Gulf red snapper fishing to just a single weekend a year.”
Apparently, in Mr. Angers’ eyes, the fact that the federal government relied on a comprehensive, peer-reviewed stock assessment didn’t prevent that information from being “inaccurate,” and the fact that such assessment was completed in 2013, and updated in 2014, didn’t prevent the information from being “outdated” when Mr. Angers made his statement in 2015.
Such is the power of belief over facts…
But as bad as things are in the Gulf, they don’t hold a candle to the post-truth world of the mid-Atlantic summer flounder fishery.
Summer flounder, often called ‘fluke,” are a mainstay of the inshore private boat and for-hire fisheries along a broad swath of the East Coast, from Virginia all the way to Rhode Island. They are heavily fished, and any change in regulations has a significant economic impact on coastal businesses.
Summer flounder are deemed to be a data-rich species, benefitting from a statistically robust population model. The last benchmark stock assessment, which had no problem passing through peer review, came out in December 2013, and is updated annually. The last update was completed in July 2016.
As is the case with Gulf red snapper, biologists have no shortage of objective data that they can use to manage the summer flounder fishery.
But that doesn’t stop the affected fishermen from seeking belief- and emotion-based management instead.
That became very obvious last fall when, thanks to six consecutive years of below-average recruitment—not many young fish were entering the population to take the place of older fish being removed—the population was found to have fallen to just 58% of target abundance.
Representatives of the fishing industry immediately responded.
An article that appeared in The Fisherman magazine late last year went straight for the gut, trying to get a knee-jerk reaction from anglers by opening with the lines
“I’m about to tick you off.
“Seriously, reading any further is just going to make you incredibly angry.
“There’s no way to sugarcoat this, the coastwide quota for summer flounder (fluke) in 2017 is going to be cut by about 40%. That means a shorter season, lower bag, an increase in size limits, or any combination of the three.
“Pardon my French, but I told you that you’d be pissed!”
The author didn't mention why such greater restrictions were needed until later on in the piece, after the reader’s emotions had a chance to kick in. And even then, the facts were presented as slim slices of meat sandwiched between thick layers of indignation that were completely in harmony with their post-truth environment.
The data itself gets an emotional flogging, with statements such as
“So, are you happy with our federal government? Do you trust the data? Think one more cutback in the recreational harvest will be the last?...
“I could tell you to make some reasonable argument about fluke population dynamics, the ‘fatally flawed’ [Marine Recreational Information Program] data, or the inherent issues with NOAA’s trawl survey methodologies…”
The Fisherman writer ignores the fact that the Marine Recreational Information Program was never deemed “fatally flawed” by anyone other than such writer and his cronies; MRIP was designed to improve on and replace the Marine Recreational Fishing Statistics Survey, which was deemed ‘fatally flawed” by the National Academy of Sciences—the same National Academy of Sciences thatjust gave MRIP a very positive review.
He also ignores the fact that, as the benchmark assessment and 2016 update indicate very clearly, the data that suggests poor recruitment and a declining stock isn’t provided merely by NOAA’s trawl survey, but by thirteen separate surveys conducted by the federal government and by every state between Massachusetts and Virginia.
Those are the objective facts.
But the author, by his very words, makes it clear that he lives a post-truth existence, where facts may be casually ignored.
As you probably realize by now, that’s pretty typical in the fisheries world.
And that’s not a good thing.
For as a lot of folks are learning, the post-truth world is a dangerous place. When you let emotion and personal belief trump objective facts, unexpected and bad things can happen.
So maybe it’s time to return fisheries management to a facts-based plane of existence.
If any such place still exists.