Patience: good for more than just waiting for the fish to bite

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Whether or not you agree with the New York Times’ Mark Bittman that we need to fundamentally re-make the American food system (full disclosure: I do), his recent column has a piece of advice that we in the fisheries world could also take to heart: have patience.

Mr. Bittman gives nod to something I have often felt, as an observer (and at times participant) of fisheries, food systems, and movements that are working to move them towards sustainability: frustration at the magnitude of the challenges we face, and fear that we’ll never quite get there.

It’s pretty obvious that frustration and fear are running deep for many people in the fisheries community these days. It may stem from different places, but ultimately it brings us to the same point. With fishery disaster declarations all over the country, increasingly firm catch limits being implemented, and some of the weirdest weather we’ve ever seen heralding climactic shifts both on land and water, fishermen have every reason to fear for their livelihoods—a basic human fear that most all of us can relate to. Where is your next meal coming from? How are you going to afford to send your child to school? Or simply pay your rent or mortgage?

On the other side, environmentalists and community activists are on the front lines of observing the consequences of our often over-zealous use of natural resources. It would be hard to see the damage that we’ve done and not feel fear for the future; and frustration about the inability of policy makers to protect against those very real fears. This fear is slightly more abstract, but no less real or valid: the fear of destroying something that once seemed boundless, and having to explain to our children and our children’s children why there are no more fish. It’s epitomized in Mark Kurlansky’s rather bleak, but powerful book World Without Fish, which chronicles three generations of a family of marine scientists and their fishermen friends, who go from catching groundfish to herring to eels, to jellyfish as everything else disappears. The final panel in the graphic novel section of the book shows a small child asking, “Mommy, what’s a fish?”

But Mark Bittman asks us to step back from our fears for a minute. He points out that the scale of the movement must match the magnitude of the problem. Building movements of such magnitude takes time. And to do work that may unfold over a long period of time—past our lifetimes perhaps—takes extraordinary patience.

It’s easy to look back and say, the environmental movement has been going strong for 40 years; how much more patient do we need to be? In fact, you could make a case that in the United States we’ve had a thriving environmental movement for more than 100 years, when conservation became an issue of national consideration in the 1890s. But you’d be missing out on the nuance of what these movements were working towards, and what we now need to achieve. In fact, the history of the push for conservation and environmental protection is long and complicated, and fraught with inner conflicts. That’s a story for another post, but the take away for right now is that the goals of the movement have not always been unified, or clear.

Our current work of shifting towards more sustainable patterns of living in everything we do—including fishing—certainly stems from the ideas and policies that these movements set in motion. But in many ways our current challenge is different. Our current challenge is to take the understanding that we must do something differently, and put it into motion, against an opposition of the status quo (who would understandably just prefer that we would all just go away and let them fish as much as they want to, thanks), against the wishes of less pragmatic idealists (who think we ought to just stop fishing period) and against the odds of a system that is built to resist change.

Ideas about managing our resources in such a way that we do not destroy either the resource or the human activity it supports have been with us for some time. Usually they were lone voices speaking up against the grain, such as an early visitor to the Bering Islands named Jakovlev, as described in Callum Roberts’ The Unnatural History of Sea. Jakovlev reportedly petitioned the authorities to restrict the take of the sea cow, which had proven to be a gastronomic boon for the traders of Kamchatka.

Of course he was unsuccessful and the sea cow is now extinct. But increasingly, those lone voices picked up speed, and increased to a pitch that became harder and harder to ignore. Now, I would argue, they’re pretty commonplace. Even the most radical anti-conservation voices adopt rhetoric claiming to support conservation. And while this might make it a bit harder to pick out the authentic conservationists from the crowd, it means that the idea that conservation and sustainable use of natural resources is essential has won. Nobody is arguing for overfishing anymore, and that’s a powerful thing.

We would be mistaken to think that the rhetorical win is the end game though. For years, fishermen and conservationists have been worrying about declines in fish stocks, and with good cause. US waters have been heavily fished for generations, and in most regions, they’re worse for the wear. New England is the poster child for overfishing, with its once iconic fisheries having given way to now equally iconic fisheries collapses. And yet even the most vocal critic of current fisheries laws and management would probably acknowledge the need to conserve the resource, for the preservation of the fishing industry and the hope of a future one. Unfortunately, years of chronic overfishing are being met with rapidly changing climactic and environmental conditions that could thwart even our best intentions for managing a resource that not only puts food on the world’s tables, but defines a regional way of life. These problems run deep, and they are complex. And as frustrating as it may sound, they can only be addressed with a deep breath, a sense of perspective, and, à la Mr. Bittman, patience.

It’s been less than 40 years since the Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976 passed—the grandfather of our current Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. And it’s been just over 5 years since this law was reauthorized, with significant changes in the tools that it directed managers to use to end overfishing and rebuild overfished stocks. There are a lot of opinions out there about how the law is going. Some of the members of our community love it, and tout its successes. They point to the highest number of rebuilt fisheries in a year ever (2011), and the slowly declining number of stocks that have to be declared subject to overfishing. Others bash its extensive bureaucratic reach, and bemoan its overreliance on a body of science that is far from conclusive. And most of the rest sit somewhere in the middle.

With reauthorization of the law on the horizon, and enormous challenges to fisheries continuing to emerge (illegal and pirate fishing, seafood fraud, ocean acidification and temperature rise, fisheries disasters) along with the age old question of how many fish we can sustainably catch, it’s essential that we have patience—both with the time that it will take to solve these problems, and with each other. It’s the only way forward, and there’s no use in trying to go back.

Spin free science

There’s a tremendous amount of focus out there on how terrible, sucky, whack, wild-ass, and just plain poor fisheries science is. Now, there’s nothing wrong with questioning science. In fact, science is all about questioning things. But too often in our nation’s fisheries debates, the back-and-forth isn’t serving a constructive end. And at least part of the reason is that scientists are not always good at communicating science in a clear, understandable fashion to people who are too busy fishing to follow the many, intricate, convoluted steps that it takes to do good science. In short, we’re in desperate need of more plain spoken, spin free science in the fisheries world.

In the ongoing back and forth between fishermen and scientists, there appear to be frustrations on both sides. I think that many times scientists say “I don’t tell fishermen how to fish, they shouldn’t tell me how to run models.”  Unfortunately, this is just as unhelpful as the other side — folks like the Recreational Fishing Alliance’s spin machine that stokes fires of government mistrust in order to pad their membership — using tales of troll-like enviro-scientists plotting to ruin coastal economies and put fishermen out of business just for fun.

There’s clearly often a disconnect between fisheries scientists and fishermen themselves. There have been efforts to break down the barriers — cooperative research being a highly successful one — but we need to do better. So let’s talk, no bullsh*$, about fisheries science, and let’s start by all getting on the same page about our expectations.  I once had a fisheries science professor who said that if we could see through water, there would be no “science” in fisheries, just a census. The fact is that we don’t understand very much about the ocean and the fish that live there partly because we can’t see them.  The models that scientists use to determine a fishery’s status as overfished and/or undergoing overfishing are forecast probabilities of different outcomes, sort of like hurricane models forecasting different storm tracks.

These models take into account biological information about the fish like how fast they grow, when they reproduce, and how well they survive after being caught.  They also account for removals by fishing and natural deaths.  These models do not give us a clean answer, such as: there are 3.451 million red snapper in the sea.  Instead, they respond to “random” events and variables like ocean currents, temperature shifts, prey availability etc. in order to find the range of possible answers as well as the answers that are more likely than other answers.  Let’s look at the results of a stock assessment below. This is a graphic representation of the stock assessment for South Atlantic black sea bass from 2011.

Each dot represents the model’s results, given one set of assumptions and circumstances. Look at how many dots there are!  That means that there are so many variables at play, that it’s possible to get any of these answers, but where the dots cluster, is a set of more likely answers. Any dot to the right of the vertical line indicates overfishing (taking fish faster than they can reproduce).  Any dot below the horizontal line indicates an overfished population (the population is at a lower level than can sustain itself). So for this stock, almost all of the dots are below the line—this means that only a few sets of variables conspire to leave the stock at a healthy level. The vast majority of circumstances result in a stock at a depleted level. The overfishing status is not as clear, which we see because the dots are centered around the vertical line.  The green lines indicate the most likely status of the fishery, and as you get further from those green lines, the less likely that answer is.

Yup, that’s it. This is the poor-ass science you’ve heard so much about. Not so scary up close.  Now, if I want to catch the maximum number of fish possible without leaving a single extra one out there, then this chart of dots is poor indeed. All it tells me is the likelihood that the stock is healthy. Managers (and their science panels) have to make some decisions about future catch levels that have a good chance of moving the stock and its fishery into the healthy, productive area of this chart.

Our best science can’t give us the exact answers we want from it, so we are left with choices.  Here are just a few.

  1. Manage our fisheries to account for uncertainty in the science, meaning that on occasions we’ll forgo some immediate-term fishing opportunities
  2. Gather more data to reduce scientific uncertainty, often meaning that we spend a ton of tax-payer money to do so
  3. Disregard the science and rely on some other information

There are problems with each answer, but certainly number 1 is the easiest and quickest, and I think that’s why we’re seeing it.  We are also seeing some movement on number 2, such as additional monitoring and data collection, and revamped science programs.  But when we choose door number 3, and say that we shouldn’t listen to the science, I would like to hear the alternative.  To what or to whom should we listen? To you? To me? To some other guy or gal? That doesn’t seem all that much better, does it?

The truth is, choosing door number 3 is one of the things that got us into this overfishing mess in the first place. The fact is, science is a tool that we use to make hard decisions. Sure, the sharper the saw the less difficult it is to cut down the tree. But without the saw at all you’re plain out of luck.

In the often heated discussion about how we manage specific fish stocks, calling out the science as bad is kind of a dead end right now. Maybe there aren’t enough data points, maybe we could monitor certain interactions differently, maybe we can’t afford to pay for enough eyes on the water, or analysts in the lab. But the science itself isn’t bad. It’s just science. Imperfect, yes, but still ultimately the most useful tool we’ve got.

I’m not being sarcastic or snarky (this time) when I pose the question: what would work better? I’d genuinely like to hear your concerns and suggestions, in the comments, or on our Facebook page.