Thursday, November 29, 2012

Enforcement, fisheries dirty little secret

As I’ve mentioned in the past, I prefer to work directly with fishing communities in designing management systems. This is not a misguided liberal idea that fishing men and women are inherently responsible stewards of their resource. We have examples both of conservation ethic and of blatant mismanagement by fishers, in modern times and going well back in history. Nevertheless, the opinion of fishing communities matter because enforcing fisheries regulation is really tricky and the attitudes of fishing communities makes or breaks most forms of regulation.

Most fisheries take place offshore with boats spread over huge areas. We have a growing toolbox of enforcement techniques to keep an eye on fishing activity and ensure it complies with regulations, but we are still a long way off from being effective enforcers, particularly in small-scale fisheries in developing countries where resources are limited. Arguably the most impressive modern technology is a vessel monitoring system. When enforcing a closed fishing area, onboard transponders can signal the location of the fishing vessel. Typically regulations require that any passage through a closed area is done while under full power, since most fishing activity can only take place if the boat slows down and speed can be tracked by the vessel monitoring system. This technique also offers the potential to identify illegal boats, a capacity I hope I can work with the Colombians to put into some of the remote fishing grounds we study. Remote radar systems can identify all boats, while vessel monitoring systems can show the locations of legal boats. Any other vessel can be flagged for inspection to see if it is fishing illegally (or doing other illegal activities, like drug trafficking).

Other regulations are more challenging to enforce. We often use size limits for fish, only allowing people to keep ones that are above a minimum size or, less commonly, below a maximum size. While large scale fishing operations are relatively easy to monitor by inspecting their catch dockside, catch from smaller more dispersed fleets is not so easy to monitor. There’s an even bigger problem. Most fishing gear catches a wide range of fish sizes. Gear modifications can reduce the unintended catch of fish that are too small or too big, but rarely eliminate it. Amazingly, the typical management solution to this challenge is to require that boats throw under-or over-sized fish overboard. The same policy goes for cases where a big haul exceeds the catch limit that a boat has: fish get thrown overboard. In a few cases, primarily invertebrates like lobster or crab, most of the fish survive this process. In most cases, though, many of the fish are dead and just as “caught” as if they had been brought into port. Moreover, because the fish were discarded, we often do not have data on this portion of the catch.

What can we do, then, to enforce size and catch limits, two of the most common forms of fisheries regulation? Compliance from the fishing community can make all the difference. If the majority of the community does not believe in a regulation, it is very unlikely it will be followed. If the majority do believe in a regulation, they are likely to enforce among each other.

This realization should not be a justification to give license to fishing communities to pick and choose any regulations they like. The rules should be set up with long-term goals, including sustainability, in mind. Doing so requires that scientists, managers, and fishing communities work closely together to identify goals, design appropriate management measures, and ensure that fishing communities understand the value of these regulations for their own future.

Compliance should not be a goal in and of itself, but marine fisheries regulations will be far more effective if they are made in concert with the fishing community. Compliance is a far better enforcement solution than a heavy hand.

All the best,

Thursday, November 22, 2012

How to save the Gulf of Maine cod fishery

What better time is there to talk about the Gulf of Maine cod fishery than today, considering the role seafood played in the Pilgrim’s first Thanksgiving feast? This week, Alison Fairbrother published an article bemoaning the scientific process in fisheries management, focused specifically on the cod fishery of New England. The article discussed the fate of a fishery with a long illustrious history, predating the Pilgrims. In a fascinating book on the subject, Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, Mark Kurlansky suggested that Basque fishermen were fishing on these grounds before Columbus and may have influenced his decision to sail the Atlantic. Either way, the cod stock supported a prolific fishery for centuries. From colonial times, when it was most often preserved with salt, to the childhoods of baby boomers, when it came as fish sticks or square fillets, cod was the go-to white fish. Catches decreased gradually over the first half of the 20th century, built back up through 1990, and then were reduced dramatically, and Alaskan pollock became the new ubiquitous white fish. On the Canadian side of the border, the government shut down the cod fishery in 1992 because evidence suggested the stock had dropped to such low levels that they felt there was no other option, leading to economic collapse and a substantial exodus from fishing-dependent communities. Evidence suggests the cod stocks have begun to rebuild from a low in the mid- to late-1990s, but still have substantial way to go.

I have a personal connection with this fishery. My family roots reach back to the Mayflower. Also, the issues that are raised in the current controversy are near and dear to my professional interests. You see, uncertainty still plays a central role in one of the world’s best studied fisheries.

Despite being the focus of decades of research and analysis, Gulf of Maine cod present ongoing scientific mysteries. The most basic one, faced by all fisheries and virtually all renewable resource management systems, is that we cannot accurately predict how much new resource is on the way. In the case of fish, we can only estimate the number of babies that will be produced. As an alternate example, in managing a reservoir we have to rely on forecasts for how much new water will be coming in from upstream. In both cases, we have to make educated choices, which are essentially gambles. Though we cannot pick a single outcome, we can choose the size of our gamble (I’ll write more on these parallels and the gambling analogy in an upcoming blog).

The recent cod controversy was fueled by an assessment from 2008, which suggested that a strong class of fish born in 2005 would allow for continued fishing while allowing the stock to rebuild to a healthy level by 2014 (a timeframe specified under US fisheries law). Unfortunately, that turned out to be a false hope; the 2005 year class did not pan out, most likely because the data were a statistical fluke. Even with cod, where the government conducts extensive surveys to measure the population size over time, we only take samples of the actual population. Samples can give a wrong impression if they happen by luck to catch an unrepresentatively high or low number of fish. When discovered in 2011, this mistake left little wiggle room with a deadline to rebuild by 2014. The government scientists indicated that rebuilding was only possible if the fishery were essentially closed down.

To make matters more challenging, the fishing industry hired a clever scientist to represent them at meetings. Doug Butterworth presented an alternate assessment of cod in 2011. The key difference was an assumption by him that large fish were somewhat immune from fishing. Without this assumption, the government assessment interpreted the paucity of fish in recent scientific surveys as evidence that relatively few mature cod were out there. Butterworth’s twist enabled him to assume there were many mature cod; they were just beyond the reach of the fishing gear we would use to detect them.

Ever heard of dark matter? It was proposed to balance equations relating to the Big Bang theory, making up for the lack of observable matter in the universe. Dark matter at least had a theory to guide its assumed existence and recent evidence has begun to suggest it may be a reality. The proposal of dark fish, though, was simply motivated by the fact that we can’t rule out their existence, which is convenient for a fishing industry who feared the economic effects of a closure like the one Canada enacted 20 years ago. Amazingly, the US government enacted a compromise between its scientists and Butterworth, establishing a catch limit far in excess of what government scientists believed would allow rebuilding by the 2014 deadline. It may be convenient to blame Butterworth for this state of events. I certainly don’t respect his contribution. Others may blame aggressive Senators who were made aware of the controversy and pushed to have both sides heard. Both of these attributions are off. The problem was that the government regulators, in association with the fishing communities, had gambled big and lost. They may not have even realized they had done so until it was too late.

To me, this whole controversy feels like déjà vu. I worked for the government as a scientific adviser and later as a stock assessment scientist from 2003 to 2007. Early on, I was responsible for giving guidance to fisheries managers in the Gulf of Mexico about a fish species, the vermilion snapper, which had been declared overfished. Its status was not as dire as cod’s has been, but it fell under the same federal laws that set a deadline by which the stock had to be rebuilt to healthy levels. I was working with a management council that, like the one in New England, was not known for giving deference to its scientists. The Gulf council had already indicated they wanted a rebuilding plan that kept catches constant throughout the rebuilding plan. Economically, it is desirable to avoid booms and busts because busts cause major social disruptions and booms tend to drop prices. The problem with constant catch limits is they ignore the lessons of rocket science (see last week’s blog)—they are entirely unresponsive to evidence that the trajectory may need adjusting and represent a big gamble as a result. Instead of dogmatically pressing my idea of reasonable catch limits, or dreaming up dark fish, I educated the Gulf council.

In my analysis, I highlighted two significant consequences of a constant catch policy. First, since it would be applied to a growing population, regulations would feel tighter each subsequent year in order to maintain catches at a constant level while fishing an increasingly abundant and easy-to-catch stock. In addition to the regulatory challenges involved, they would also have to confront fishermen who were catching fish easily and would likely be of a mindset that rebuilding had already happened (a phenomenon I suspect has had some influence on New England cod fishers). Second and more significantly, I highlighted to them that stock assessments are uncertain. I illustrated a scenario—what if we had inadvertently overestimated the productivity of the stock by 10% and discovered the error on the next assessment four years in the future? I explained that such an error was certainly possible, and that, under their preferred plan, this discovery would have resulted in scientific advice to shut down the entire fishery. I never told them they couldn’t choose the catch limits they initially had preferred. I simply educated them about their weaknesses and highlighted how they were a bigger gamble than some alternatives.

In response to my advice, the Gulf council chose a rebuilding plan that dropped catches initially and allowed them to increase as the stock recovered. In short, they chose the sort of plan that was more likely to hit their target in an uncertain world, even though doing so would cause some social disruption. But, the advice worked. The most recent assessment estimated that vermilion snapper is exceptionally healthy and fully rebuilt ahead of schedule. We cannot revisit the past and try an alternate experiment. However I suspect the managers were much happier facing the fallout for some (justified) initial pain that has led to a healthy fishery than they would have been facing potential mutiny if, a few years later, they were considering a fishery closure just as I had warned was possible.

If we want managers, and even Senators, to make and/or accept some hard choices about the Gulf of Maine cod fishery, we have to teach them that decisions favoring fishing today increase the chance that unexpected events will lead to further restrictions tomorrow. Ultimately, managers have to perform a balancing act that takes into account the economic suffering deep cuts in catch limits would inflict and the potential for even greater suffering in the future. Doing this task properly requires that managers have a clear understanding of how much fishing communities are willing to pay now to reduce the size of the gamble with the future of their fishery. Thus, we should not limit the involvement of the fishing industry in the science by, for example, excluding hired guns like Doug Butterworth. We should welcome this involvement and even encourage other interested parties like conservation groups to hire scientists. We also need to ensure that scientific advice clearly describes our uncertainty about the future and the implications of that uncertainty. Feel free to lobby your favorite conservation group, fishing group, or government agency to formally request my help. Like Butterworth, I am for hire. Unlike him, my goal will be to use science to inform the inherent trade-offs in management choices and ultimately craft effective solutions that stand the test of time.

Happy Thanksgiving,

Thursday, November 15, 2012

It does take a rocket scientist

My perspective on fisheries is not typical. My fellow scientists are more likely to focus on scientific details and less on the implications of the science and its uncertainty for managers, fishing communities, and society. The involved public may see fisheries management as a messy political machine that answers to vested interests. I see it as a control system.

I mentioned Bruce Bollermann in my first blog, and it’s time to share the full story of our collaboration and his contribution to my views on fisheries management. Bruce and I are family—my brother Steve was married to his daughter, and they had three wonderful kids who are my teenage nephews. My brother is a couple of years older and had kids before I did. Being a family-oriented guy, I made a point of visiting Steve and his family in their Arizona home often. That meant that I regularly spent time with Bruce, who lived nearby. My politics are complicated but my sentiment runs liberal. In contrast, Bruce is a dyed-in-the-wool Republican. At the time, I was the senior scientist for a major ocean conservation group, while Bruce designed missile guidance systems for the military. Needless to say, conversations between us required navigating a minefield of potentially explosive topics.

Math saved us. From the beginnings of my PhD training, I have relied on mathematical models to describe ecosystems and their potential human influences. Bruce, too, relied heavily on math in designing systems to maximize the chance that a rocket hits its target. We slowly discovered our common interest in math and, over time, striking similarities in our mathematical techniques. Bruce was the first to float the idea of sitting down and comparing notes. I chalked his offer up to his semi-retired state, while I was working 60 to 80 hours a week trying to keep on top of all of the scientific needs of a growing organization. Looking back, though, it may simply have been generosity on his part since rockets tend to hit their targets, whereas fisheries, well, not so much. A key component of rocket science is called control theory, and it is the study of systems and how to best control them to achieve a desired result. What a perfect concept for fisheries management.

Despite the many demands on my time, I was able to convince two wonderfully supportive supervisors—Bob Irvin (now President of American Rivers) and Warner Chabot (who recently stepped down as CEO of California League of Conservation Voters)—to give me a week of time and a travel budget to head to Arizona and study rocket science, in the hopes it would shed some light on fisheries management.

The first day, Bruce went over the basic theory of rocket guidance systems. They have a well-defined target, a system that monitors progress toward the target, and thrusters that engage when the trajectory is off. These three components are all critical: a defined target, a monitoring system, and a mechanism to get back on track. The second day was my turn, and I had to admit to Bruce that fisheries are weak in all three components. Our targets are regularly chosen in an ad hoc manner, with political wrangling and concern over urgent problems often blocking any long-term planning. We invest in fisheries monitoring, but we evaluate progress for only the well-studied fish stocks (which are the exception, not the rule, as I pointed out last week) and even that typically takes place every one to five years. Bruce had a hard time with the concept that evaluations weren’t happening daily. However, the biggest failure in fisheries management is the lack of a responsive system to get them back on track. In contrast to Bruce’s sophisticated self-guiding missiles, fisheries managers usually shoot poorly aimed cannonballs.

Bruce and I looked at what might be possible with a fishery, even a poorly understood one, if managers made decisive cuts to fishing immediately when evidence suggested the stock was below a healthy target. The results were shocking: we could achieve highly productive catches with a low chance of fishery collapse. There was a hitch, though. Catches would be highly variable from one year to the next, with the possibility of frequent closures of the entire fishery. We published our work and I invite those of you with a keen interest in math, fisheries science, rocket science, or simply a cure for insomnia to look here.

As I dug deeper into the fisheries science literature, I found we were not the first to discover this potential for sustainable fisheries, nor the cost in terms of unpredictable catches. However, those who preceded us settled for fisheries management systems that traded off sustainability for more predictability in catches from one year to the next. Their initial recommendation in the late 1980s/early 1990s was to fish a constant fraction of the population each year, so that catches would be high when the stock was abundant and lower when abundance dropped. By the late 1990s, some scientists were encouraging managers to build in more sustainability by reducing catches more dramatically. However,

I don’t disagree with the need to make these trade-offs, nor with the more recent recommendations, which may be suitable for many fisheries. I do take issue, though, with scientists choosing the balance. Each fishery is different and deserves a management system designed with its ecological, economic, and social factors in mind. In the US, these considerations are even mentioned explicitly in our federal fisheries law under the definition of optimum yield. Yet, optimum yield is set at the same level for virtually every US fishery. The concept is applied especially poorly when we have little information about fish stocks, despite the existence of management alternatives that would work in these cases. At Bridge Environment, we believe we can do a better job of tailoring management systems so that they more closely resemble rocket guidance systems, with clearly defined targets, monitoring of progress, and decisive corrections when evidence suggests we are off-target. We especially appreciate the opportunity to work directly with fishing communities so that they can have a stronger voice in how to trade-off the size of catches, their variability, and their sustainability. In our experience, educated fishing communities will design and support high performance management systems that lead to healthier fisheries and marine ecosystems.

It turns out it does take a rocket scientist to manage a fishery. Thanks Bruce!

Warm wishes,

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The interplay between science and objectives in fisheries management

The blogosphere this week will no doubt be dominated by discussions of the U.S. election. I spent the week far away in Santa Marta, Colombia, attending the 65th Annual Meeting of the Gulf and Caribbean Fisheries Institute. Two topics have dominated the presentations, posters, and discussions here: invasive lionfish, and how to manage poorly-studied fisheries.

Lionfish are pretty to look at and apparently good eating if you can catch and clean them without getting stabbed by their large poisonous spines. I can personally vouch for how easy it is to spear them. On a fishing expedition this summer, I managed to catch three, while other reef fish leisurely swam away from me, confident I couldn’t hit the broad side of a grouper. The problem is that lionfish are invaders. They were first recorded living wild outside of their native Pacific Ocean in 1985, from a sighting in Florida. They presumably were introduced by aquarium owners who didn’t have an adequate tank for a growing and voracious predator that likes to eat small fish, no doubt including its tank-mates. Since then, lionfish have become a major part of coral reef ecosystems across the Caribbean, and may be depleting their prey fish while also slowing the recovery of fellow predators. Efforts are underway to promote lionfish fisheries, in the hope of controlling them. We know little about this potential fishery, but we at least have a clear idea of what we want out of it—to reduce the numbers of lionfish.

By contrast, most poorly studied fisheries present two problems: we do not understand their ecology well, and people have different ideas about what they want from the fisheries and the ecosystems that support them. Even in parts of the world with wealthy governments capable of performing state-of-the-art studies, most marine fisheries are poorly studied. The U.S. government, for example, manages and is required to report status annually1 of 498 fish stocks spanning waters from Alaska to the U.S. Virgin Islands. Government scientists have only identified the health of 40% of these stocks. In the tropics, the situation is worse: only 25% of U.S. Caribbean stocks and less than 20% of Hawaiian/Western Pacific stocks have been assessed. Although the U.S. now has rules that require the specification of annual catch limits for all species, there is a strong tradition of paying inadequate attention to poorly studied stocks, using their unknown status as justification. In providing more attention, we are faced with the question of what we want out of the fishery and ecosystem.

We struggle with this issue in all fisheries, but the choices are especially stark when we have little information to guide us. Ironically, this lack of guidance may be the key to future success, because it makes it hard to ignore the interplay between objectives and science. The reality is that we can manage a fishery with very little data, setting objectives for current and future catches. The hitch is that we may not be able to sustain these catches, so we need a mechanism to adjust when some simple data collection program tells us the stock is in decline. The need for responsive catch limits was a key lesson from my foray into rocket science. The rules by which we make adjustments will shape the benefits we get from this system, including the catch levels, variability of catches from year to year, and the likelihood of avoiding a stock collapse that would necessitate low catches to allow for rebuilding. Informed fishermen, managers, and the public can negotiate over these benefits to craft a minimal data management system and then adapt it over time as we learn more about the fish stock. There is a general movement towards systems of this sort that prescribe catch limits as a function of data on the abundance of the stock, but mostly for better-studied stocks. Even in these cases, decisions about the systems are often made without a clear understanding of the trade-offs in objectives inherent in the decision. In order to manage data-poor stocks, we must use systems of this sort. In doing so, we can highlight how to do a better job for all fisheries.

Tomorrow, I present my work on Colombia’s Caribbean spiny lobster fishery. In recent years, economic conditions have kept fishing effort down and the stock appears to be quite healthy. Economic conditions are improving, though, and there are a lot of lobsters to be caught, so the healthy status is most likely temporary. I am spending next week reviewing the data on finfish (as opposed to shellfish) fisheries in the same region. I already know the data are extremely poor, and hope that reviewing management options with the Colombians will underscore the value of a minimal data management system that includes automatic adjustments to the annual catch limits. Hopefully, by going through this exercise in a case where data are so limited, I will successfully illustrate the benefits of crafting a similar policy for the better-studied lobster fishery. I will keep you posted.

Best regards,

1 39 fish stocks are excluded from this requirement, most of which are salmon and many of which are endangered or threatened.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Launch of Bridge Environment

Today, we launch Bridge Environment--a project of the Ocean Foundation. This organization represents my effort to balance interests and abilities that span three important disciplines. I started my career as a marine ecologist with a burning desire to make my science useful. Pursuing that goal has taught me a lot about policy making, about the use of science, and frankly, about humility. In the process, I have gained extensive experience in environmental policy and economics through sweat, some sorrow, and a lot of serendipity.

Luck found me as I began to generate results from my first project--design principles for marine protected areas--just as the marine conservation community discovered this management tool. Though the demand for my expertise was deeply satisfying, I found that groups and governments were often unwilling to roll up their sleeves and do the hard work of crafting thoughtful policies. I also noticed that scientific advisers, myself included, were often complicating the process by confounding the insight science could provide with their own values, but even more frequently by avoiding values altogether such that their advice was not relevant to the important questions over which policymakers and the public struggled.

Ever since, I have striven to make science more useful by adapting my efforts and outlook. Early on, I had a chance to learn some lessons about managing fisheries from a rocket scientist--Bruce Bollermann--who designs missile guidance systems for a living. My work with Bruce helped me realize the central role that uncertainty plays in our attitudes about fisheries regulations and environmental policies in general. This realization inspired me to go back to graduate school to study the psychology of decision-making via the fields of behavioral, environmental, and public economics. Behavioral economics, in particular, has focused on how people perceive and respond to uncertainty. It turns out that our brain wiring is at least part of the explanation for why debates surrounding most environmental issues seem alike. The psychology of negotiation also plays a role as people have a hard time negotiating effectively when they mistrust the other party. People are unlikely to offer up some sacrifice of their own if they doubt their opponent is meeting them halfway.

Many people believe we can use science more effectively when crafting environmental policy. We believe a major step towards this goal is to make science more useful. Doing so requires more effort into building bridges between the policy world and the worlds of ecological and economic science. In making these connections, Bridge Environment aims to catalyze a cultural shift in how our society addresses environmental issues.

If our work catches your interest, please consider following this blog, keeping an eye on our website, and supporting our work with your thoughts, energy, and financial contributions. I promise future blogs will provide more stories, both funny and sad, that describe the origins of my views and the interesting situations and work opportunities they have made possible. If you have thoughts on our work, positive or negative, we would love to hear from you.

Best regards,