Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Some fishermen want all the fish

Conservation of fish has broken out in California, and some fishermen are having none of it. They want to win back the mere 18% of ocean waters protected recently in central California's coastal waters.

A surprising aspect of this attack is that they're supported by fisheries scientist Ray Hilborn, acting more like a pro-fishing activist. Likening anyone who disagrees to religious zealots, Mr. Hilborn proclaims that all is well in California. Has he noticed that California's groundfish fisheries were declared a federal disaster in 2000?

This attack on California's new MPAs is hard for blogfish to understand. To my fishing friends in California: if you can't catch everything you want in 82% of the ocean, why do you think the other 18% will give you what you want?

The real conflict seems to be over who controls our oceans. Fishing interests and fisheries scientists, used to being in charge, want everyone else to butt out. Scientists and others with broader agendas are tired of waiting for the promised land of self-managed fisheries that actually conserve fish.

Note the map at right, seems like quite a bit of ocean is still open for fishing. California's ocean conservation actions will likely be heralded as visionary in 100 years, click here for more including detailed maps.

Mr. Hilborn, with his dogmatic defense of fishing is drawing some sharp new battle lines in the debate over how much fishing is too much. Apparently, The Good Depletion is more than just a good idea to Mr. Hilborn. This struggle is far from over, and blogfish is keenly interested.


Tracy Rouleau said...

I had real hopes for this blog - hoping that somehow someone could start a reasonable, fair-minded, accurate discussion regarding the fisheries issues that plague our nation and the world.

However, unfortunately, your constant attacks are not only unproductive (pun intended) but contribute greatly to perhaps the greatest problem that faces fisheries today, the inability of the different actors in the fisheries arena to realize that we are all seeking the same results (more fish in the oceans).

If we could work together to resolve the problem and provide accurate (Hilborn doesn't mention California at all in the paper you cited), well thought out, productive dialogues rather than slinging insults and discrediting professionals who you may not agree with but still deserve at least a small measure of respect, then the fish might have a fighting chance.

Mark Powell said...


Look again at the first article cited, wherein Ray Hilborn says:

"One of the premises of this has been precipitated by the Chicken Little notion that California has been overfished, but that is not true," says Ray Hilborn, professor of fisheries management at the University of Washington's School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences.

"In fisheries management, California is already one of the best in the world," he says. "This is not about fish yields or fisheries management but protecting areas because people like them protected. The science teams used in this were loaded with marine ecologists who have an agenda to really set up private reserves for study."

Did you read "faith-based fisheries" by Mr. Hilborn? Blogfish is MILD compared to Mr. Hilborn's attacks on ecologists who don't agree with him, the journals that publish their papers (lame journals like Science and Nature), and their dogs.

Funny, in fisheries discussions it's ok to attack enviros or people viewed as "opponents of fishing," but it's NEVER ok to critize the city fathers or the overfishing that they enable.


Mark Powell said...


Thanks for the tip, I fixed the link behind "all is well in California." It went to "faith-based fisheries" instead of "Is California saving fish or picking on fishermen?" Although it really matters little, both make the point by showing Ray Hilborn saying some amazingly unscientific things in defense of fishing.

I wonder if he'll be criticized for crossing the line into advocacy, as happens to scientists who talk about the scientific research showing benefits of marine reserves.


Tracy Rouleau said...

First - I don't believe it is OK to "attack" anyone - including enviros (of which I am one). I do belive a healthy dialogue with all the facts - not just a selected few - presented is what is really needed to resolve the fisheries crisis.

But the problem is that these discussions get so polarized, and even more problematically antagonistic, to where adovcacy on BOTH sides misrepresents the scientific facts. And frankly, as an enviro, you (and I) need to be especially partial to facts to avoid the so-called "enviro-rant" that completely disintegrates any credibility in policy discussions.

For instance - fisheries may have been declared a disaster area in 2000 but the cause noted by NOAA fisheries was NOT overfishing but rather environmental causes "Factors that may have contributed to the declines include changes in ocean conditions, low productivity, and five El NiƱo events since 1982." a point you conveniently left out...

And furthermore, while Hilborn may or may not be correct, he is not alone in his questioning of the scientific merit of the articles appearing in Science and Nature. There has been substantial debate especially regarding the recent Worm et al. article - the source of the so often quoted "fisheries collapse in 2048". Because Worm's article is a meta analysis it adheres to methodologies that while accepted generally in policy and sociology circles are not considered "best-practice" methodologies by many of those that practice the "hard" sciences (Meta-analyses are meant to show GENERAL trends in large series of data - not specific facts)

While I have read the Worm et al. article in detail, and discussed it with many colleagues (where popular opinion in my experience is about 50-50 on the scientific merit of it), it can be misleading. I understand that the 2048 date is simply the end date of their simulation (all simulations have an end date - you simply run the simulation until the stock goes to 0)- and noted that it was presented in the article in parentheses and probably almost meant as an afterthought - Worm et al. could have been more responsible and realized that this would be the "media-bite" that would have been picked up. I can certainly understand Hilborns frustration at such an arbitrary number being taken as "fact", and being publicized so widely, and his frustration with the often declining quality of articles published in peer reviewed journals. I am not going to comment on the validity of your opinion or Hilborn's on whether the the new CA MPA is a result of politics or science - but I will say that in my experience much of the work done on showing the benefits of MPAs uses weak methodology and could probably use a more rigorous review prior to publication (my expertise is in valuing environmental goods and services that cannot be bought or sold in markets)

But you still miss the real point - Hilborn and the other fisheries scientists, fishermen, environmentalists, policymakers - we all have the SAME goals -- more fish in the oceans and creating management practices that foster sustainable fisheries and fishing communities. If one really listens to what he is saying rather than just picking soundbites - he simply explains that much of fisheries data is misrepresented, and is just a result (the expected result) of the management practices that existed in the past and pretty much still dominate today - management according to MSY (a pretty simple concept - fish a stock to where they reproduce the fastest and then you will get the maximum yield over time).

More importantly, he points out that if society wants this commonly used and almost universally accepted method of management to change - and probably most fisheries managers (including Hilborn) know today that MSY doesn't completely account for the opportunity costs to the stock, hence the trends towards IFQ's and DAPs - it is the political process that needs to change it. Furthermore that fishery managers and especially fishermen (and apparently scientists and advocates) are especially stubborn and resistant to change making the process a slow one. However, he helpfully points out that there are MANY MANY successes in fisheries management and that if we take the lessons learned from these successful fisheries and apply them to troubled fisheries then perhaps we can create a solution that satisfies everyone.

Mark Powell said...


Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I agree with much of what you say, but find some important areas of disagreement.

I agree that conflict over methods and data are central to this debate over depletion. Meta-analysis is useful but not everyone likes the technique, and that creates disagreement. But the central conflict is over goals. I agree with Hilborn on that point. So we're not really all after the same thing, we have different goals. And I agree with Hilborn that conflicting goals get hidden into conflicts that are supposedly scientific or analytical.

The real issue in front of us is who controls our oceans. And I think Hilborn and colleagues in the fisheries establishment are angry at upstart ecologists who dare stick their nose into fisheries management without adhering to the accepted scientific norms of the profession. WELL, THE ACCEPTED SCIENTIFIC NORMS OF THE PROFESSION ARE PART OF THE PROBLEM. THE PRIMACY GIVEN TO MSY, EVEN AMONG SCIENTISTS, IS OUTDATED AND SHOULD BE ABANDONED. All please note: if the fisheries establishment had done a good job at maintaining fish, this conflict never would have happened. I know some of the ecologists who criticize fisheries management, and I knew them before they got involved in critiquing management. What happened is that ecologists got tired of studying things that were declining because of bad fisheries management, and they got mad and active. Defensiveness from the fisheries establishment is what we're seeing now.

So Tracy, there is a political battle going on, over what should be the goals of ocean and fishery management, and the ongoing "scientific" debate includes a battle between conflicting paradigms (sensu Kuhn), so don't expect it to be tidy. It will involve conflicting assumptions, outrage, umbrage, and cries of "foul" as opponents cite failure of the other side to adhere to cherished assumptions (alleging "misrepresentation" of data, for example). And the failures of fisheries management are just as important as the successes in pointing the way to the future. I'm all for looking at both, and I do that in my day job. Check out:

OK, now for the really boring part...but there's an important point buried in this lengthy comment:

I actually know quite a bit about that 2000 disaster declaration for west coast groundfish. I participated in the management of that fishery at that time, as a member of the advisory panel to the managers. Also, I understand the debate over causes since I am an oceanographer by training and have west coast experience. I think my comments on that subject were accurate and succinct. To prove that point, I'm going to get long-winded and boring:

The essence of the manager's claim is that fish didn't reproduce as fast as they were caught.
It's strange to say that is natural causes. Managers were warned early that this fishery was overcapitalized and catching too many fish. Bob Francis, then of NMFS, published a paper in 1984 that accurately predicted the crisis and collapse (quotes at the bottom of this comment). Many people involved in science and management of that fishery knew it was a runaway train headed for collapse, but nobody knew how to apply the brakes. It was too hard and too contentious, because overbuilt fleets were the problem as explained by Bob Francis. Eventually the overcapacity and resulting overfishing caught up to the managers and the fishermen. Here's a link to a very good bit of award-winning journalism from a small CA newspaper that does justice to the collapse:
The real truth of the disaster declaration is that they couldn't get federal disaster aid for a management failure, they had to say it was natural causes, and they knew they were stretching the truth. I have much more to say about this, but nobody really wants to read it. The point is that there is a lot of unstated background behind my posts. You jumped on something (the disaster declaration) without knowing all the facts, and came to the wrong conclusion. That's fine, I don't have a problem with it, because that's what we do when we do analysis and draw conclusions.

On your general want a dialogue with "all the facts." Nice idea, but who decides what are the relevant facts? And who referees what's a fact vs. a well-founded opinion? Nobody really wants to read all the facts, so somebody has to summarize. And besides, the facts don't speak for themselves so somebody needs to interpret them and draw conclusions. That's the essence of analysis and commentary, even scientific analysis and commentary.

So Tracy, if you got all the way to the end, I have a suggestion. Wanna do a guest blog on blogfish? We could pick a topic and do a side-by-side, for example something on valuing BOFFs in the west coast groundfish fishery? Then we could look at our differences and areas of agreement with a focus on a specific set of facts and how we choose to interpret them? Sound like fun?


Quotes from Francis, 1984 “Fisheries Research and It’s Application to West Coast Groundfish Management” University of Alaska Sea Grant Report 85-2. Proceedings of a conference held in Anchorage, November 1984.

“Groundfish species currently requiring management attention along the west coast have life history patterns that encourage overexploitation. These resources have such low rates of production and (relatively) high unexploited standing stocks that fisheries can develop and mature relying almost entirely on the standing stock (as opposed to new or surplus production) for their sustenance. These resources are ultimately harvested down to levels at which their productive capacities are destroyed."

“The U.S. west coast domestic rockfish fisheries, particularly off the Washington and Oregon coasts, are, in my opinion, most likely beyond hope.”

(these quotes are both from 1984--managers WERE WARNED about persistent overfishing)

Tracy Rouleau said...


First of all - Yes, it sounds like great fun (as you probably have guessed I love healthy debate)!

I also agree with your assessment that in most (or many) cases MSY is outdated and should be abandoned. Although one of my colleagues on the MAFMC notes that one of the biggest problems with MSY is that the recommended "scientific" levels determined by MSY often get "politicized" down to levels that are necessary for consensus among the different actors (in the political process) - and therefore MSY according to the political process differs vastly from MSY from a scientific perspective.

Thanks too for your more detailed explanation of the west coast groundfish collapse - it's nice to hear an different perspective - I lived in SF during that time and most of the coverage focused on the El Nino events. Not surprisingly, it sounds like a series of environmental events triggered a catastrophe that had been building already due to overexploitation of the stocks - looks like we are all subject to misinterpretation of the "facts".

Have a great Holiday!

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