Fisheries Science and Fishermen

2nd September 2011 in Fisheries Science

An important change is underway in the relationship between fishermen and fisheries science.

Even in the recent past it was not uncommon for the fishing industry to utterly reject the validity and worth of fisheries science and fish stock assessments in particular. And fisheries scientists tended to view the fishing industry, at best as uneducated about the intricacies of their work or, at worst, a toxic mix of naïve short-term self-interest and belligerence.

Whilst strands of these attitudes remain in both camps, it is now more common to find fishermen and their organisations working in close collaboration with fisheries scientists, arriving at shared conclusions about the state of the stocks and jointly developing solutions to the challenges facing fisheries.

What underpins this change?

Compartmentalisation to Collaboration

Ever since the international marine and fisheries body, ICES, was established in Copenhagen in 1902 to provide objective, impartial, scientific advice to the governments which funded it, close dialogue and collaboration with the fishing industry was perceived to risk the very impartiality and objectivity that was part of its founding ethos. This mindset led to a very distant relationship between fishermen and scientists for a very long time. Any contact with the fishing industry was through very long and formal lines of communication; as a result scientists, policy makers and fishing industry heavily compartmentalised. For a whole century dialogue was the exception rather than the rule and tended to be irregular and latterly, confrontational. In governments’ eyes the privileged form of knowledge produced by scientists automatically took precedence over other forms of knowledge, such as that held by working fishermen and was automatically the exclusive reference point for policy decisions.

From the 1970s onwards European fisheries moved with bewildering speed from being an economic sphere with minimal government regulation, to one subject to very a heavy and complex although generally ineffective, control regime. Entirely in tune with this command and control approach to fisheries management fisheries science maintained its remote, top-down ethos.

Meanwhile, the system was crumbling, especially in respect to the important demersal fisheries in EC waters. Fleets built on profits from what turned out to be a temporary spike in stock abundance (the so-called gadoid outburst ) became a serious liability when the environmental conditions changed and stock recruitment for this important group of species returned to a historically average level. This imbalance between the capital in the industry and the available resources was greatly intensified by freely available EC and national construction and modernisation grants and the EC price support mechanism both which created perverse incentives. Science tracked the changing stock trends but it became clear that the management regime wasn’t remotely up to the task of delivering policies that would deal with either the legacy of overcapacity or its impact on the stocks. Whilst the cumbersome Brussels based regime blundered around searching for solutions, and member states resisted paying for the capacity reduction that would have addressed the core issue it became clear that the system of Total Allowable Catches which was intended to constrain out-take from the fishery, as well as allocate shares to the different member states, was under serious strain. This eventually led to the dead end of effort control.

As a fleet well out of balance with available resources struggled to maintain viability in changed conditions, under- reported landings, misreported landings and perversely sometimes over-reported landings, comprehensively undermined the scientific stock assessments. The backbone of the assessments were the official landings statistics and as these veered sharply from actual landings in most member states, the ICES system struggled to cope. Many European whitefish fisheries entered a vicious downward spiral. Misreported landings, mainly driven by fleet overcapacity undermined the stock assessments; this in turn led to lower TACs, which in its turn led to even greater misreporting as vessels fought to survive.

Within this failing and dysfunctional system, fishermen pointed to the inadequacy of the stock assessments and unrealistic quotas; scientists for the most part maintained their assertions of superior knowledge and emphasised the downward trajectory of the main stock trends; and when the two sides did meet the confrontations were not pretty. Over time, management measures became blunter but not necessarily more effective.

Emerging from this maelstrom of failed policy, failed science and failed fisheries has taken time and is still work in hand. But hitting rock bottom had at least one positive effect as it brought about a re-evaluation both within the scientific community and the fishing industry of how we should relate to each other. Policy failure had been the catalyst for change.

A Change of Direction

The fishing industry still enjoys robust exchanges with fisheries scientists on the quality of the stock assessments. The difference is that these now take place within the context of a widespread system of collaboration and dialogue. These are constructive, purposeful discussions from which both parties benefit. They mark an evolution within the fishing industry but equally they have required fisheries scientists to move away from their customary distant relations with the fishery towards a more collaborative approach. These developments have taken time and contain a number of different strands.

North Sea Dialogue:One of the first of these strands was the North Sea Commission (Fisheries Partnership), which emerged from the Haddo House Conference in 2000. This was one of the first times that fisheries scientists and fishermen and their representatives sat down together, on an international basis, to discuss and analyse specific stock assessments. Under the august chairmanship of a former fisheries minister and subsequently a retired and well respected director of a fisheries laboratory, individual stock assessments were analysed jointly, sometimes with the involvement of a scientist from outside the ICES system as peer reviewer. It is hard to overstate the value of these early discussions. From the industry’s perspective, it was interesting to witness disagreements between the scientists, undermining the pretence that science is an absolute uncontested truth, rather than provisional knowledge based on the best but always imperfect information that we hold at the time. Ideas emerged that ultimately led to new scientific approaches based on participative research and a broader perspective which absorbed wider lessons about the relationship between good governance and effective fisheries management. It is significant that several of the middle level scientists who were engaged in those early discussions have now risen to the pinnacle of the ICES system with a genuine appreciation of the value of dialogue and collaboration with the industry. Ultimately, the North Sea Commission (Fisheries Partnership) led to and was instrumental in the formation of the North Sea Regional Advisory Council, where the dialogue and collaboration has continued and developed.

Fisheries Science Partnership Projects: Another important development in the emergence of a new relationship between fishers and fisheries scientists was the establishment, following discussions between the NFFO and the then UK Fisheries Minister in 2003 of the Fisheries Science Partnership. Not to be confused with the North Sea Commission (Fisheries Partnership), the FSP is a Defra funded programme of collaborative research projects using commercial fishing vessels and CEFAS scientists to jointly investigate and produce new data on issues jointly agreed by the industry, scientists and policy makers as valuable and important. It is the antithesis of the compartmentalised approach and is regarded in published scientific papers as a model of participative research. The use of commercial fishing vessels has not just provided useful data, informed policy decisions and complemented the more formal assessment techniques; it has provided the means through which many participating fishermen have for the first time worked collaboratively on the quayside and on the vessels with fisheries scientists. The Defra Fisheries Science Partnership, which initially drew on experiences of collaborative fisheries science in Norway and the United States, has in turn become a model for projects across Europe. A major conference organised by Belgium last November, as part of their EU presidency, showed just how far we had come in developing participative fisheries science.

Regional Advisory Councils: The arrival of regional advisory councils in the 2002 CFP reform provided another platform for the dialogue between the fishing industry, other stakeholders and fisheries scientists. ICES has made a concerted effort to establish strong links with the RACs and individual scientists from national laboratories have played a central role in shaping RAC advice, acting as a sounding board in internal RAC discussions and helping to develop advice on long term management plans. Many regret that scientific input into the RACs has been rather too ad hoc and dependent on the varying commitment and resources of the national laboratories but there is no denying that substantial progress has been made in establishing regular and mutually constructive exchanges between fisheries scientists and fisheries stakeholders. As an example, the recent North West Waters RAC contribution to the review of the EU Cod Management Plan was based on detailed discussions between fishing industry representatives and fisheries scientists with direct knowledge of the Irish Sea and West of Scotland fisheries. In the final analyses the RAC is responsible for its own interpretation of the data and scientific viewpoints in framing its advice but there is no doubt that that advice has been hugely strengthened through that close dialogue.

Fishermen’s Knowledge: An ever deepening dialogue between fishing stakeholders and scientists has in recent years led to a greater appreciation of the vast stores of knowledge held by individual working fishermen but in the main left untapped by science. Understanding of local ecologies, spatial and temporal patterns in specific fisheries, as well as fishing techniques and fishing strategies are all pivotal to both fisheries science and effective fisheries policy. These are precisely the areas of specialised knowledge held by fishermen. Accessing that knowledge, even where it has been acknowledged, is not straightforward as it is generally in a form that can be dismissed as unsystematic or anecdotal. But it can be done and through fisheries science partnership projects, industry annual fisheries reports, and exchanges within the RACs some of that knowledge is being transferred and incorporated into fisheries science without undermining the standards of objectivity and impartiality so highly valued by scientists. The strength of incoming recruitments and the spatial pattern of fishing are two areas of fishing industry knowledge that are of immediate interest to both scientists and policy makers. Real time information on changes in the marine environment, including year-classes, are likely to be picked up first by those who spend their working lives at sea. And the spatial patterns of fishing are of critical importance to those who are engaged in the design and implementation of effective marine conservation zones or offshore wind-farms. Technology is an ever more powerful tool in providing readily available information for policy makers but it often requires a high level of dialogue and collaboration to interpret and make sense of the raw data.

Data Deficiencies: Some 60% of ICES assessments fail to achieve full analytical status with population estimates. Sometimes there are good scientific or resource issues for this but equally often the problem lies in data deficiencies that have their roots in the era of management collapse and the subsequent degradation of the ICES assessment system. In a recent initiative, and where the problem can be identified as something the fishing industry can do something about, the North West Waters RAC has established a series of interventions through appointed data coordinators who will coordinate with ICES assessment teams in fixing specific data problems. Where the problem is, for example, absence of historical discard data there is little that can be done. But where there is an absence of current data and it is feasible for the industry to provide it, the role of the data coordinator is to mobilise the industry, and sometimes the pertinent member state, to take remedial action. This is no quick fix but will over time improve the quality of the data being used in the assessments and the ICES benchmark process. Not all assessments are seriously data deficient and not all assessments can be fixed through this type of initiative but where it is relevant it should be possible to make significant improvements. This is a win-win process because strengthened data improves the scientific assessment, informs policy decisions and ultimately (all other things being equal) should lead to higher quotas as fisheries managers will not feel obliged to apply a severe application of the precautionary approach in these circumstances.

GAP 1 and 2and Jakfish Projects: Recognition of the value of working collaboratively with fisheries stakeholders, within a framework of good governance, has generated important projects initiated from the scientific side. One of the most important of these is the GAP projects, which explicitly aims to close the gap between scientists and fisheries stakeholders. A project with different emphasis but similar aims called Jakfish has supported and informed the North Sea RAC in developing a long term management plan for nephrops amongst others.

Over-complex Assessment Models: One of the encouraging aspects to emerge from the very healthy dialogue between the fishing sector and fisheries scientists is the self-reflection within ICES that it has engendered. Scientists are currently questioning whether data-hungry assessment models of ever increasing sophistication is the way to go, if gathering the data is problematic. The EU Data Collection Framework Regulation may over time increase the availability of consistent and timely data but ICES is also exploring whether simpler models, using industry sources of data such as fisheries science partnerships may provide part of the solution. There is probably room for all of these initiatives as ICES, fisheries managers and the fishing industry work to reboot the assessment process where it has collapsed.

Uncertainty: It has been said that in fisheries there are only two certainties; one is uncertainty and the other is change. The emergence of new forms of dialogue and collaboration between the fishing sector and fisheries scientists is important and timely because uncertainties about impacts that environmental change may have on commercial fish stocks are set to grow rather than diminish. Dealing with uncertainty requires a move away from the pretence that science has all the answers to hand, towards an acknowledgement of the limits of our collective knowledge and therefore a need to arrive jointly at conclusions about how to respond to these inherent constraints. Dealing with uncertainties requires a platform for this kind of dialogue and the RACs are one important area where this can take place.

Demand for New Data: It is not just environmental change that creates demand for new approaches to scientific knowledge. The requirement for an integrated approach to sustainable development within the marine environment requires a comprehensive and coherent evidence base for decisions on marine protected areas and marine spatial planning generally. The experience of establishing European SACs and domestic marine conservation zones speaks loudly of the inadequacies of the present evidence base; as does the experience of round 1 and 2 offshore wind-farms. In these circumstances there is a very real danger that sites and management measures are adopted not only fail to provide protection to vulnerable features and habitat but perversely increase environmental degradation as well as causing social and economic dislocation. There is simply not sufficient money available to do the research and data work that would provide a reasonable evidence base for the MPAs planned. In these circumstances the need for the kind of detailed engagement between scientists, policy makers and stakeholders at the right spatial level is critical. In this it would be folly to ignore the experience of the last 20 years in the commercial fisheries.

Conclusions and Ambitions

The past decade has seen important progress in the development of a high level of dialogue and collaboration between the fishing industry and fisheries scientists. After reaching rock bottom at the turn of the century,with the effective collapse of many aspects of the management and assessment systems, both groups are now working within a range of different initiatives to strengthen the evidence base on which important policy decisions are made. This has involved abandoning an outdated compartmentalisation which has been a barrier to communication and collaboration in the past. The media presentation of omniscient scientists and fishermen as pantomime villains departs from reality and does no justice to either group - and certainly doesn’t help us deal with the challenges that we jointly face. Hopefully this article will go some way to redressing that imbalance.

Although much progress has been made already, the NFFO has high ambitions for the future. A close working relationship between fisheries scientists and the fishing industry is at the heart of our plans. The use of commercial fishing vessels as research platforms and reference fleets, the close cooperation needed to develop effective long term management plans, as well as a CFP reform that would increase the scope for delegated responsibilities, all require a high degree of cooperation and engagement between fishermen and fisheries scientists. Much has been achieved but equally there is much more to be achieved in travelling down this road together.