Sunday, March 22, 2009

New England's war on science

Fishing interests in New England have convinced politicians to launch a new war on science and common sense. They want to keep catching fish faster than they can reproduce.

New England's war on science might be dismissed as simple regional protectionism if it didn't include Senators Kennedy, Kerry, Snowe, Collins, Reed, Whitehouse and Shaheen. That's not just a few fishermen throwing elbows. Or is it?

With this list of Democrats and Republicans involved, it's interesting to note that New England's war on science is not a partisan issue. And a quick look at the record shows this war isn't new. The Seattle Times reported on this during Kerry's presidential campaign as a conflict between Kerry's good environmental record and efforts by the region's politicians to protect some small fishing fleets with some surprising political clout.

The science involved in this dispute has been reviewed, and reviewed, and reviewed. These reviews include one by the National Academy of Sciences in 1998, a series of reviews by a specially appointed team, including one in 2002, and one in 2008, and a review by the Inspector General's office in the Department of Commerce, designed to answer questions raisedby New England senators. In fact, this science may be some of the most intensely scrutinized science on earth. And every time it's been judged to be sound. So the science is beyond dispute. Why the problem? Because the science is inconvenient in saying that fishermen are killing too many fish.

In case you're a glutton for punishment (like me) in reading the history of the overfishing follies, check out this brief history of how we got into this colossal mess from the Conservation Law Foundation.

We know how the overfishing story ends, and it's not good. For just one painful example, we can look at Newfoundland and the collapsed cod fishery that still hasn't recovered 17 years later.

The Gloucester Times, that bastion of common sense, even goes so far as to put quotation marks around the word "overfishing." The science behind overfishing is simple, straighforward, and widely accepted, but in Gloucester there are still doubts. They're probably still buying subprime mortgages in Gloucester too.

Elsewhere, e.g. Alaska, the fishing industry is thriving under the federal law that requires fishing according to science-based limits. Here's a press release from an industry association in Alaska praising managers for following scientific advice and cutting fishing limits. So what's wrong in New England? New England fishermen are the victims of their own success. They've successfully fought responsible managment for so long that it's become a heritage. Whatever happened to Yankee thrift?


Anonymous said...

I dug into this a bit and it seems that the strategy of the fishermen is to claim poor communications from the agencies to the industry. I am wondering if there would be some value here in creating some basic explanatory materials that would illustrate how the assessments and the population dynamics models work.

Mark Powell said...

Communications have been tried, again and again. The problem is not poor communication, it's that the fishermen don't like the message that they're killing too many fish. So, they're waiting for someone to come along who will give a message that they like better, such as go ahead and kill MORE fish. Now that would be good communication from their point of view.

When my boss tells me that I can't have a raise, should I tell him that he's not communicating well just because he doesn't tell me what I want to hear?

Anonymous said...

It's a similar situation with North Atlantic bluefin tuna and ICCAT -- no matter how much the organization's own scientific body says that the stock is dangerously overfished, the Commission (mostly driven by the European Community) still drives for harvest levels above even replacement yield. Like Senator Kerry, this action by the EC tends to fly in the face of the Community's generally good environmental record.

Perhaps part of a solution would be economic, e.g., more buy-back programs for vessels, etc. to reduce the economic need to go fishing. (At the very least, it would decrease the power of that argument by the fishermen...) One should remember in all this New England mess that we (the U.S. government as NMFS) helped encourage the building of an overcapitalized dragger fleet through low-cost loans and other programs. Surely Tim Geithner can find a billion somewhere in the trillions he's spending so that we can permanently remove fishing effort in U.S. fisheries, right?

Anonymous said...

Wouldn't a perfect solution be to grow fish? Why do we have to disturb the peace in nature when we can just harvest our own fish that we "grow" in a pool or something. I bet it won't taste any different and would save a lot of money on boat expenses. I just never really saw the advantages of fishing in the oceans, rivers, etc.

Take care, Lorne

Anonymous said...

As an industry rep, I'm ashamed that some of my colleagues have pushed the envelope this far. Once politicians start using legislation as a tool to manage fisheries (in response to claims of "unfairness" and "inaccurate science") we start down a slippery slope.

Distract... detract... and delay... three cards that are too often played in my backyard.

Also, it is unfair and untrue to assume that all fishermen in New England are drinking this "legislative fix kool-aid"...

Eric Heupel said...

Yeah, it's awfully hard to communicate with someone when they willfully don't listen. Reminds me of a 4yo sticking their fingers in their ears and start yelling "NYAH! NYAH NYAH!,I CAN'T HEAR YOU!" It really is bad when segments of their own community are looking at the situation and calling them on their bad behavior.