Thursday, September 3, 2015


The Desiderata was written in 1927, but didn’t become part of popular culture until 1971, when a reading of the prose poem was recorded and widely played on Top 40 radio shows.  One of its hints for living a well-lived life is to

“listen to others, even the dull and ignorant; they too have their story.”
But having been involved in fisheries management issues for three decades and more, I’ll take issue with that sugestion.  If we listened to the “dull and ignorant” comments made on fisheries issues, we’d be in real trouble, and have little time left for the truth.

I was reminded of that about a week ago.

A couple of times each month, I write something for the Marine Fish Conservation Network’s blog, “From the Waterfront.”  Last week, my subject was lobsters, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s complete failure to follow scientific advice, and the resultant collapse of the southern New England lobster stock.

In the fisheries world, any mention of science will bring out the ignorant.  In droves.

So when the Network put my blog up on Facebook, I was hardly surprised to see someone respond

“This tactic is typical for the extreme environmental industry as a whole.  NO COMPROMISE is their mantra.  They want draconian laws and absolute power to inject policy over science.  The [Magnuson Stevens Act] has extreme issues with science requirements and it has become more and more obvious in recent years.  There is [sic] ZERO requirements for the “Science” used in fishery management under the MSA to be 1) Reliable, 2) Current, 3) Complete 4) Actual Non Computer Modeled Data.  I have sat thru many meeting with these paid mobsters trying to shut down fisheries just because it “Feels right”, despite science being proven wrong on the issue.  They also have managed to close healthy fisheries, despite known problems with the data, and once closed and the faulty science exposed…its all but impossible to reopen the fisheries under the current deficiencies in the MSA.  The MSA also ignores the life cycles in of various fish stocks in favor of an unscientific rigid and arbitrary rebuilding timeline.  When fishermen really concerned with the health of the stocks suggested making reliable science based data a MANDATE in the MSA…it was these very same extreme eNGOs that balked the loudest against such!... “
Apologies for the length of the quote, but I wanted to convey its full flavor. 

Now, to be fair, it’s not clear whether the writer was merely dull and ignorant, a condition that can be cured, in large part, by an extended exposure to knowledge, or whether he was instead dull and stupid, which would suggest a more innate and chronic condition.  But whichever it was, the passage was pretty typical of the rants that flood fisheries managers’ offices every time they try to do the right thing.

As the comment's writer got everything wrong, it might be interesting to start at the top and take a good look at just how far off-base and unreasonable opponents of Magnuson-Stevens can be.

Let’s start with his first premise, that conservationists (typically described as “extreme environmentalists” or, in this case, “the extreme environmental industry” for greater effect) are unwilling to compromise on fisheries issues. 

We’re talking about a collapsing lobster stock, and advice from numerous scientists who all thought that something between a 50% reduction in landings and a complete closure of the fishery was needed to provide any chance that such stock might recover.

In such circumstances, what would a compromise look like?  

Would it be a small reduction in harvest, something like the 10% that the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission ultimately imposed, an insignificant reduction that would still allow the stock to collapse, but just do so more slowly?  Or perhaps an agreement to shut down the fishery, but only after the last lobster was gone?

Then he tells us that the same conservationists seek the “absolute power to insert policy over science.” In the context of lobster, that’s pretty ironic, since every bit of the science called for an immediate reduction in harvest, but was trumped by a policy of keeping the fishery open for socio-economic reasons.

But maybe that’s because the writer doesn’t really understand what “science” is, or how it works. 

The law requires that fisheries decisions be based upon

It doesn’t set standards for just how good “the best” has to be.  That is good, for knowledge is always evolving, and there is more information available for some species than there is for others.  

When the question arises in fisheries cases, courts rely on the decision in Building Industry Association of Superior California v. Norton, an Endangered Species Act matter where the court noted that an agency need only base its actions on

“the ‘best scientific…data available,’ not the best scientific data possible.”
That’s a reasonable standard, for if completely current, absolutely complete and error-free data, developed without the use of computer models, was required before regulations could be adopted—which seems to be what the comment’s writer is suggesting—no regulation would ever exist.

Which may be just what that writer intends.

For his objections only seem to apply to cases where managers reduce the fishermen’s kill.  He talks about fisheries being “shut down…despite [the] science being proven wrong,” and whines that “They also have managed to close healthy fisheries, despite known problems with the data.”

 But he never seems to express a worry that fisheries may be opened, or harvest increased, even if the best data available is neither current nor complete, and may have been generated by computer models. “Bad science” is apparently OK for that…

The same theme is repeated when he talks about “making reliable science-based data a MANDATE in the MSA.”  

Ignoring, for a minute, the fact that National Standard 2, already a part of Magnuson-Stevens, effectively does just that, I can only assume that he’s talking about the Fisheries Science Improvement Act of 2011, a bill that, if it had passed, would have made

“the catch limit mechanism for all fisheries inapplicable to any stock of fish…for which a peer reviewed stock survey and stock assessment have not been performed during the five-year period before enactment of [that Act] and for which the Secretary [of Commerce] determines overfishing is not occurring.
In other words, it would be OK for the Secretary of Commerce to determine that a stock is not being overfished, based on an old stock assessment, or to maintain a fishery for such stock even without an annual catch limit.  But if the National Marine Fisheries Service established a catch limit based on older data, or found that overfishing was occurring and restricted the harvest, well, then it was asking for trouble…

Apparently, the comment’s writer would set an impossibly high bar for managers attempting to conserve a species, but would require no data at all to justify fishermen’s kills.

When you think about it, that’s both ignorant and dumb.

And that’s why, when it comes to fisheries matters, the Desiderata got it wrong.  The stories of the dull and ignorant are not worth hearing, although they are too often told.

Data provides the only story worth hearing, along with the scientists who urge greater precaution when that data is slim.

For if we do that, yet err, the worst thing we’ll end up with is more fish than we planned for.

But if we take the advice scribed in ignorant comments, we could end up with no fish at all.

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