Fishing and Science: Changed Days

20th October 2012 in Fisheries Science

The fishing industry is more reliant than ever before on fisheries scientists to defend it from policies influenced by the exaggerations, superficiality and sheer nonsense of some of the more extreme green NGOs and their allies in the sensationalist media.

For those of us who are getting on a bit and can remember the torrid annual meetings between fishermen and fisheries scientists in the 1990s, when ICES recommendations for the following year’s quotas were announced, it is surprising to witness the dramatic transformation in the fishing industry’s relationship to science and fisheries scientists in more recent years. Sometimes, only just short of spilling blood, those once yearly meetings were almost the only contact that the industry had with fisheries scientists at the time. It was clear that there was a huge amount of mutual distrust.

There are many strands to the story of why and how the relationship between fishermen and fish stock assessment scientists has matured over the last decade. The Fisheries Science Partnership projects; changes in thinking and personnel in ICES; the end of the era of widespread misreporting of catches; the establishment of regional advisory councils; a different mindset in the industry; improving stocks and higher TAC recommendations ; and involvement of the industry in key ICES and STECF meetings have all played their part.

Evidence vs. Assertion

What is also remarkable is the degree to which the fishing industry now relies on science. It is the fishing industry, facing unsupported assertions from the more extreme wing of the environmental NGOs, and their allies in the media, which now demands evidence, rigour, impartiality and a systematic analytical approach: In other words, the scientific method.

It is now more likely to be the fishing industry which points to ICES stock assessments and urges ministers to “follow the science”, as an antidote to the Commission’s proposals, influenced as they not infrequently are by a fundamentalist political agenda. It is now environmentalists and their allies in the sensationalist wing of the media, who stand accused of reliance on assertion and selecting and presenting only those facts which support their arguments.

The fishing industry needs the work of scientists to inject balance and sense of proportion into debates on fisheries policy.

Some Examples

Rebuilding Stocks

The clear, unambiguous, evidence that most stocks in the NE Atlantic (which for these purposes includes the North Sea and Baltic), are rebuilding and that fishing pressure has been dramatically reduced over the last decade, relies on science to measure and evaluate the trends. The media’s resistance to reflecting these positive trends in its reporting says more about its addiction to sensationalism and catastrophe stories than the realities of fishing mortality and biomass trends.

We owe fisheries scientists a debt in providing a sober and objective antidote to wild claims and unsubstantiated assertion.

Marine Protected Areas

A clear scientific rationale for the designation of marine protected areas is a good example of where a good scientific underpinning can pull decision- makers back from policy decisions based on an assumption that an MPA will inevitably deliver benefits for habitats, biodiversity and fish stocks. Science tells us that the 2001 closure of 400 square miles of the North Sea, ostensibly to protect cod spawning areas, delivered the displacement of the Scottish demersal fleet into immature haddock grounds, the beam trawl fleet into pristine areas that had never been fished before, with little or no perceptible benefit for cod stocks. This is enough of a warning to be cautious of hasty, weakly grounded policy decisions which have the potential to displace fishing activity.

MPAs have an important role to play in protecting vulnerable habitat and biodiversity but it serves no one to base their location, size, shape and management measures on woolly thinking and a fingers crossed approach, which the evidence shows can do more harm than good.


All of this is not to say that science is infallible or that it should be worshiped as such. There are too many examples where science has got it wrong, made mistakes, barked up the wrong tree or been crippled by data deficiencies, or weak models based on flawed assumptions, for the fishing industry to be naive in this area. The marine environment is not a closed laboratory and presents unique challenges for scientist, not least during a period of rapid environmental change.

But the rigour, impartiality, analytic power and focus on evidence that science brings is recognised and (now) respected by most in the fishing industry. Most fishing organisations, irrespective of size, are now likely to be working with fisheries scientists on collecting data, discussing problems and generally cooperating.

The regional advisory councils have taken the lead in addressing the problems of those fish stock assessments which have been undermined by weak data. The North West Waters RAC, for example, has appointed data coordinators to liaise with ICES scientists on specific data-poor stocks and particular data deficiencies. Stronger data means stronger assessments and less reliance on precautionary quotas. The fishing industry, fisheries scientists and fisheries managers all have a mutual interest in fixing broken assessments.

There is a broad recognition that the future for the fishing industry lies in working closely with fisheries scientists, from the top of the ICES tree down to port and vessel level. Strengthening the science base and addressing weaknesses in both fisheries science and fishing practice demands close cooperation.

It is of course a mistake to assume that all those who work under the name fisheries scientists have the same commitment to rigour and impartiality. There are examples of dogma, selective use of evidence and extrapolation beyond the reasonable or rational even in fisheries science. The Boris Worm assertion that on current trends all fish stocks globally will collapse by 2048 is the most notorious example; but it only lasted a matter of months before it was retracted in the face of criticism from fellow scientists.


We predict that cooperation between fisheries scientists and fishermen will deepen and expand over the next few years. Long term management plans are already providing a framework for TAC decisions for an increasing number of stocks. There is broad acceptance that plans built on the involvement of stakeholders in their design are more likely to deliver their objectives.

In our estimation, discussions and cooperation between fishermen, fisheries scientists and fisheries managers will be at the heart of progress towards effective, balanced long-term management plans.

This is a strange turn of events for those of us who witnessed those early conflicts between fishermen and scientist. The truth is that both have learned how to overcome the old, outdated ways of thinking. It has been said that every fishing vessel represents a potential research platform. The challenge for both the industry and scientists of this generation is how to harness that potential to ensure that science is provided with a constant flow of high quality, relevant data about our fisheries in order to better manage them.