Thursday, July 13, 2017
BECAUSE YES, SCIENCE MATTERS
If you follow the hunting media at all, or perhaps if you just flip through the outdoor channels from time to time, you’re probably familiar with Steven Rinella, creator of the series MeatEater, which presents the hunting and fishing experience in its traditional role, as a way to provide food for the hunter/angler and his/her family.
It can be an enjoyable show, featuring high production values and remote country, but most of all a respect for the quarry and a consistent message that while the animals killed may be trophies, we should never forget that their primary role is to provide sustenance at the end of the ages-old dance between hunter and hunted.
MeatEater has evolved into a franchise with a substantial following, with a website that provides everything from past episodes of the show to a MeatEater clothing line to wild game recipes.
It also provides comment on hunting and wildlife management. A recent op-ed that appeared there is worthy of some comment here. Titled “Science-based Wildlife Research is a Valuable Tool for Hunters and Anglers…Let’s Treat it as Such,” and written by Brody Henderson, a writer, fly-fishing guide and part of the MeatEater franchise, it is as relevant in the salt water fishing arena as it is in the heart of the Rockies.
The op-ed supported science-based wildlife management, and emphasized the importance of such science to hunters and anglers. But as a salt water fisherman, a few paragraphs that appeared about halfway through the piece seemed particularly relevant. The author noted that
“whenever we share a piece of science-based research there is a predictable outcry from some hunters and anglers who’ve developed a frustrating distrust of scientific data. The backlash from wildlife studies we share ranges from absurd conspiracy theories to secondhand anecdotal evidence that contradicts factual information. This portion of hunters and anglers who simply don’t believe scientific data to be useful instead feel that there is a hidden agenda behind every piece of research. But wildlife biologists aren’t in the business of cooking the books and state fish and game agencies are mandated to manage wildlife as a sustainable resource. They really do have the best interests of their customers and fish and game in mind when they make management decisions based on the results of wildlife research studies.
”…if wildlife biologists discover that an Epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD) outbreak decimated a certain whitetail deer herd in Kansas then it’s likely that wildlife managers will drastically reduce doe tag numbers in that area the following hunting season. That’s sound management, not a tricky ploy by the anti-hunting lobby to take away hunting opportunities…
“We may weigh-in on a study based on personal experience because opinions based on years of boots-on-the-ground knowledge are valuable. But we’ll never outright ignore or refute scientific data because we feel that wildlife research only enhances our efficiency in the field…”
Such comments are notable for their common sense, and from a saltwater perspective, where all of us who have ever attended a fisheries meeting have heard the conspiracy theories, the attacks on fishery managers had the attacks on fisheries science, made so often and so loudly that they tend to do little but numb the mind.
The comments are also notable, from a salt water angler’s perspective, because they’re the sort of thing that we never read in magazines targeting the salt water angler. Such publications rarely remind anglers of the importance of science-based fisheries management; if anything, they provide a platform to the conspiracy theorists, who are always ready and willing to attack agency decisions that lead to more restrictive regulations and reduced recreational landings.
Summer flounder tend to cause a lot of such reactions. Biologists on the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s Scientific and Statistical Committee determined that the population was down, and at risk of becoming overfished as soon as this year if harvest isn’t reduced.
But in response to proposed harvest reductions, an article that appeared in The Fisherman last fall complained that
“the American public is essentially being denied access to a natural public resource based on trawl surveys, mesh sizes, historic trends and sometimes arbitrary reference points.”
In other words, it was complaining that fishery managers were using science and data to manage fisheries!
And as anyone who has ever read a stock assessment knows, the only ones who claim that the reference points used to manage summer flounder are “sometimes arbitrary” are those who don’t know how to read—or can’t or choose not to understand—such assessments. Certainly, reference points may change as biologists’ knowledge evolves, but that doesn’t make the earlier reference points “arbitrary,” but rather just obsolete, as new information changes people’s understanding of a fish’s life history.
Still, that kind of writing tends to weaken fishermen’s faith in the management process, which might possibly be its intention but, as the MeatEater op-ed points out, still doesn’t mean that it’s the right thing to do.
On the other hand, that kind of language probably makes the magazines’ advertisers very happy.
The American Sportfishing Association, a trade group representing the fishing tackle industry, created Keep America Fishing as part of its effort to reach out to anglers and convince them to support industry positions on various management issues. With respect to summer flounder, it told anglers that
“NOAA Fisheries is considering cutting the 2017 summer flounder quotas by up to 40%. While all anglers support conservation, this decision seems rushed and unnecessary.
“The summer flounder fishery employs up to 10,000 people and generates over $1 billion in revenue. A forty percent reduction would be devastating to local economies.
“The last benchmark stock assessment was in 2013. A desperately needed update, including findings from Cornell University, is in the works. Given this new information will provide a more accurate indication of the true health of the fishery, NOAA Fisheries should delay such a drastic and potentially catastrophic reduction until the new stock assessment is complete.”
Such statement not only ignores what the biologists most familiar with the summer flounder stock recommended, but it is wrong or misleading in several respects.
First, the summer flounder “quota” (more properly, the recreational harvest limit) was not going to be cut by 40%. It would be cut by a still-substantial 30%. However, because anglers overfished their harvest limit in 2016 (something that ASA/Keep America Fishing never bothered to note), the 2017 recreational catch limit would be about 40% less than actual (and excessive) 2016 landings.
While ASA/Keep America Fishing called the harvest reduction “rushed and unnecessary,” the science suggested just the opposite. As noted above, biologists at the Mid-Atlantic Council advised that the stock hovered just above the biomass threshold, and could become overfished in 2017 if no action was taken to reduce landings. Thus, the harvest cuts were very necessary, and had to be adopted quickly to avoid a further decline in the population.
And yes, while the “benchmark” assessment was completed in 2013, it was updated every year since, and the need for harvest reductions were based on an update completed during the summer of 2016. There is no reason to believe that such assessment update did not reflect the “true health of the fishery,” and no guarantee that any later update would prove any more accurate than the one completed in 2016.
To call the pending update “desperately needed” is merely an exercise in hyperbole.
But that’s how it is here on the coast. Up in the mountains, in the lakes and the trout streams and out in the marshes where we hunt waterfowl, scientists are respected, and science-based management is generally accepted by sportsmen and in the sporting press.
Once you get to the edge of the sea, science is held in contempt, as too many publications, endeavoring to please their advertisers, try to convince anglers that science is just a new type of voodoo, and ignorance is their best guide.
Unfortunately, to an extent, they’re succeeding.
But in the ocean, as much as on the plains, good science leads to good management.
And the best thing about science is that it remains true, whether folks believe in it or not.