Fishosophy – A New Blog and Is this any way to manage a fishery?

 “Deep-Sea Plunder and Ruin” reads the title of an op-ed column in the New York Times on October 2 (also in the International Herald Tribune on October 3). The column, by two researchers who focus on oceanic biological diversity, is aimed at pressuring the Fisheries Committee of the European Parliament to “phase out the use of deep-sea-bottom trawls and other destructive fishing gear in the Northeast Atlantic.” Building on what has been an expensive and effective public relations campaign designed to convince the world that bottom trawling and other fishing technologies are destroying the productivity of the worlds’ oceans, the authors rely on hyperbole rather than accepted science to make their case.
     To bolster their argument that deep ocean trawling should be banned, they extend even beyond the oceans’ boundaries, likening deep ocean biodiversity, which trawling will supposedly reduce, to rain forest biodiversity in relation to its effects on the global climate. Reduced rain forest biodiversity might be related to what’s going on with the global climate but to imply that reduced biodiversity in the deep oceans would have any similar effect, while perhaps acceptable as eco-alarmism, certainly isn’t acceptable as science.They end with the words “there is no doubt on the part of the more than 300 scientists worldwide who signed a declaration that this form of fishing should be eliminated from the deep sea. Whatever their reasons, Europe’s fishing corporations and their parliamentary allies — the ‘merchants of doubt’ — are making one last stand even in the face of scientific consesus (sic). But this time the doubters may have run out of viable arguments.”     That all sounds pretty dire, doesn’t it? It builds on the hackneyed fiction that presently fishermen are raping and pillaging the oceans and perhaps in the future the entire biosphere. It automatically categorizes deep-sea-bottom trawls, along with unspecified others, as “destructive fishing gear,” and it implies that there is a scientific consensus worldwide that supports a ban on this particular and related forms of fishing.
     Is this actually the case? The editorial staffs of the NY Times and the International Herald Tribune obviously think so and accordingly most of the people who read it will as well. But that definitely doesn’t make it so.
     A few hundred scientists signing a declaration is hardly an indication of a scientific consensus, either worldwide or at any scale ranging down to the major university level. For examples, the American Fisheries Society has on the order of 9,000 members. The majority are fisheries scientists. The Census of Marine Life at the end of its ten year tenure in 2010 had over 3,000 participants from more than 80 nations. The majority were scientists. The Fisheries Society of the British Isles has over 700 members. The majority are fisheries scientists. This is a list that would go on and on, yet Watling and Boeuf wish readers to believe that their “more than 300 scientists worldwide” constitute a consensus. Their declaration wouldn’t even come close to a consensus of scientists in the British Isles, whose waters would be among those supposedly most threatened by their deep sea fishermen bent on plunder and ruination.
     Particularly from a fish/seafood production perspective – think of a world population of seven billion and growing – there are deep sea areas that will benefit from trawling. There are also areas that should be protected from trawling. There are methods to minimize the negative impacts of trawling that are already in use and more are being developed. What there isn’t is a public dialogue focused on determining what level of sea floor changes specifically and ocean changes in general we are willing to accept for what increased level of protein production (consider the extent to which we’ve enhanced the “natural” productivity of our agricultural regions).It is our job to see that this dialogue is entered into based on solid data and sound science, not on spin and hype.

Our oceans are vast and, as Watling and Bouefe so rightly point out, we understand very little of what goes on in them. However, that isn’t an excuse for basing public policies governing their use on faulty or distorted science, no matter how effective the PR efforts supporting that science are. Unfortunately, in the last two decades how we govern our fisheries – both in the U.S. and internationally – has been increasingly determined by overwrought alarmism such as is evidenced here.
 We owe it to our oceans, to our fishermen and to an increasingly hungry world to do as much as we can to change that, and it is our intention for the Fishosophy blog to be a step in that direction.By close of business tomorrow you will be able to get to the Fishosophy  Blog via the American Institute for Fishery Research Biologists website at  We are grateful to the AIFRB for extending to us the opportunity to share their web space and their administrative infrastructure. Posts on the Fishosophy blog represent the opinions of their authors and not necessarily those of the other Fishosophy bloggers or the American Institute of Fisheries Research Biologists..
Nils Stolpe (for myself and Fishosophy co-bloggers Steve Cadrin – University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, John Everett – Ocean Associates, Ray Hilborn – University of Washington, Bonnie McCay – Rutgers University, Brian Rothschild Center for Sustainable Fisheries, James Sulikowski – University of New England and Vidar Wespestad – Independent Fisheries Consultant)
Is this any way to manage a fishery?
     The status of river herring and shad has be an ongoing concern of anyone interested in the well-being of the fisheries in the Northeast U.S. From high abundance a few decades back these anadromous fish are presently at low levels.
The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council took up the issue of river herring and shad last year and has been exploring management options which would help in the species building back to previous levels. In particular the most recent amendment to the Atlantic Mackerel, Squid, Butterfish Fishery Management Plan – Amendment 16 – proposed measures in the mackerel fishery which would prevent any further decline in the herring/shad stocks attributable to those fisheries.
     In a defining vote at the Council’s meeting last week a motion to more fully bring these fish under the management umbrella of the Council was defeated. According to the Council (in a press release dated October 11, 2013) “the Council determined that additional management of river herrings and shads under an FMP was neither required nor appropriate at this time.” In the release the Council went so far as to list the reasons for this determination. They were:

•There are many ongoing river herring and shad conservation efforts at various levels which are already coordinated by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (Commission) and NOAA Fisheries; • The Commission and states have recently increased  their control of state landings;

• The pending catch caps for river herring and shad in the Atlantic mackerel and Atlantic herring fisheries will control fishing mortality of river herring and shad in Federal waters;

• NOAA Fisheries recently found that river herrings are not endangered or threatened and that coastwide abundances of river herrings appear stable or increasing; •  Additional research into stock abundance is needed to establish biological reference points; and

• NOAA Fisheries has recently committed to expanded engagement in river herring conservation.” Yet even in spite of this – and, I’ll be so presumptuous as to add that the Council’s and its staff’s resources appear to be maxed out at this point so any additional tasks would be at the expense of existing efforts – the Council did agree to bring together an interagency working group on river herring and shad, the progress of which the Council will periodically review beginning with its June 2014 meeting.

      It’s hard to imagine how any additions to the already ongoing management efforts focused on these fish wouldn’t result in redundancy and the squandering of too scarce administrative and scientific resources.
     According to the blog written by John McMurray, the Council member who made the original motion, none of this was anything near adequate. Perhaps to let his readers more fully appreciate his view of the federal fisheries management process of which he is a participating – and paid – member, Councilman McMurray starts his blog entry with “regular readers of this blog know that, for better or worse, I’m a member of the Mid Atlantic Fishery Management Council.”
     Then he takes the obligatory cheap – and somewhat cumbersome – shot at commercial fishermen, writing “despite the traditional default animus against regulation that tends to color commercial fishermen’s perception of regulation…” After  this he goes on to rail against the Council members – or at least the majority of them – who he apparently thinks are possessed of such a lack of judgment, character, background, education or regard for the fisheries (or any combination thereof) as to vote against his motion. This in spite of the above six points – which the majority of the Council members, those who voted against his motion, apparently comprehended. (I’ll add here that as I was skimming over the supposed thousands of comments supporting his motion that Councilman McMurray referred to a number of times – not as daunting task as it would seem, the lion’s share of the comments were from organizations representing their myriad members – it quickly became apparent that few if any of those commenters were aware of these six points enumerated by the Council. Nor were they apparently aware of the fact that the additional resources that his motion would have required would have of necessity been reallocated from the management of other fisheries and that none of those other fisheries were receiving the administrative or scientific priority that river herring and shad had already been  given.)
     Mr. McMurray then singled out two of the Council members who voted against his motion, named them, published their email addresses and wrote “they need to be accountable for those votes, and they need to know who it is they are supposed to be representing.  You need to let them know!  Here are their email addresses…”
     Mr. McMurray seems to believe that these two Council member, and by implication he himself and all other Council members as well, are on the Council as representatives of and to protect the interests of particular groups of people. From my understanding of the regional councils established by the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (FCMA), this is far from the actual case. Publicly appointed Council members swear an oath of office on taking their seats on the councils. Nowhere in this oath (available at does it say or imply that members are there to represent any particular group. Nor does it say that in the Act itself.
     In fact, in the oath each Council member agrees that it is her or his “responsibility to serve as a knowledgeable and experienced trustee of the Nation’s marine fisheries resources, being careful to balance competing private or regional interests, and always aware and protective of the public interest in those resources.”
Neither Mr. McMurray nor the two Council members he singled out nor any other publicly appointed Council member is representing any particular person or group. They are there to represent everyone, and the oath they swear makes that perfectly clear.
     I find this particularly troubling and I’d suggest that anyone with an interest in the equitable and effective functioning of the federal fisheries management system should be troubled by it as well. For our regional councils to operate the way they were designed to the public members can’t be – or can’t appear to be to those of us outside the system – beholden to any individuals or groups when they are doing their Council business. The effectiveness of a Council member has nothing to do with where he or she came from and has everything to do with how well he or she is able to evaluate and assimilate a massive amount of scientific, anecdotal and socioeconomic data and to form opinions and make decisions based on that while, as the oath of office demands, “being careful to balance competing private or regional interests, and always aware and protective of the public interest in those resources.”
     The two Council members that Mr. McMurray exhorted his readers to “educate” have brought to the Council years of education and experience that have been focused primarily on recreational and party/charter fishing. Their and their fellow Council members’ education and experience is critical to the effective functioning of the Council process. But equally important – except perhaps in Mr. McMurray’s opinion – is the informed judgment that they bring to the Council table and their adherence to the principles they swore to in the oath they took on joining the Council.
     Mr. McMurray seems to think that Council members are there to represent the interests of particular groups or individuals and to advance the agendas of those groups/individuals rather than carefully considering all of the available information and then adopting a well-considered position that is balanced and protective of the public interest. If that were so the federal fisheries management process and the federal government is needlessly squandering an awful lot of our taxpayer dollars and  an awful lot of peoples’ time on what he obviously considers to be unnecessary wheel spinning.
     I don’t have any idea what Mr. McMurray was trying to accomplish by drawing public attention to two of his fellow Council members  who voted against his motion. However, I would be surprised if his doing so hasn’t and won’t have a chilling effect on how Council members vote in the future, no matter how convinced they are that their positions are justified. It’s hard to see how this hasn’t damaged a fishery management system that many of us have been struggling to make as effective as it can possibly be.
     (I’ll note here that some of the companies that support FishNet USA are involved in the Mackerel, Squid and Butterfish Fishery and are members of Garden State Seafood Association, which I also work for. But this is an issue that transcends particular fisheries or particular interests.)