A Telling Exchange

2nd December 2013 in Fisheries Science, Media, Sustainability / Environment

Last week, George Monbiot, renowned environmental journalist for the Guardian, launched a full frontal attack on Seafish.

Seafish is more than capable of defending itself and did so.

However, in his blog George Monbiot suggested that because cod stocks in the North Sea were still below levels seen in the 1970s, the Marine Conservation Society were right to warn consumers not to eat North Sea cod and Seafish was wrong to criticise them for doing so.

The NFFO used Twitter to suggest that Mr Monbiot's comments in respect of North Sea cod were "scientifically illiterate." The 1970s saw what scientists call the "gadoid outburst", when, for reasons, possibly environmental, that are still poorly understood, most of the cod-type species saw a massive explosion in recruitment out of line with anything seen over the rest of the historical record. The point that we were making was that it was nonsense (if not deliberately misleading) to use this apparently freakish population explosion as the benchmark for safe levels of exploitation of North Sea cod now.

The Tweet reached its destination because Mr Monbiot answered in person in angry terms referring to "our bullshit campaign." Leaving aside that there is no "campaign", the retort triggered a kind of guerrilla hit and run exchange on Twitter across the course of the afternoon in which Greenpeace and others joined in, with greater or lesser relevance.

The Federation, in hopefully calm and reasoned tones, pointed repeatedly to the ICES science which shows that the biomass for North Sea cod has increased for seven successive years, that there has been a dramatic reduction in fishing mortality (fishing pressure) and that in the catch forecasts provided by the scientists there are options that would allow the 2014 quota to be set at +20% and still achieve a +34% increase in biomass, whilst simultaneously cutting discards of mature, marketable fish. After the Federation had sent to George Monbiot a copy of a scientific paper of a paper indicating that even under the current conditions of low recruitment, North Sea cod will achieve (F) maximum sustainable yield by 2015, there was radio silence.

The lessons from this bad tempered exchange are important. Firstly it turns out that Mr Monbiot was not necessarily "scientifically illiterate", it's just that he didn't bother to look at the science before writing his blog. By asking, in the final tweets of the exchange for the link to ICES advice, he was confessing that he had gone for the jugular without paying the slightest attention to the evidence and the authoritative work of stock assessment scientists.

Leaving aside whether consumers pay any attention whatsoever to the kind of “advice” provided by the Marine Conservation Society, it has become clear over the last few years that the fishing industry needs fisheries scientists. Despite the tiffs we have had in the past and the fact that counting the number of fish in the sea is an inherently complex task, the fishing industry needs fisheries science for its rational, measured and evidence-based approach. To abandon science is to leave ourselves at the mercy of the sensationalist and alarmist media and to reduce ourselves to the same type of mudslinging.

It is difficult to know what effect this kind of exchange on social media has on public perceptions about fishing and fish stocks. However, it can be said that it at least allowed the Federation to make the point to our growing number of followers that anyone familiar with ICES science would find it difficult to credibly argue that our fisheries are on a downward trend. The contrary is true. Fish stocks are responding to the huge reduction in fishing pressure beginning around the year 2000 and right across all of the main species groups in the North East Atlantic. If only that message sinks in to the environmental journalists, our efforts will not have been wasted.