The science of sustainable seafood, explained

Are MPAs the Best way to Protect the Ocean? – Response by Dorothy J. Dankel

Comment by Dorothy J. Dankel, University of Bergen & Nordic Marine Think Tank

I very much appreciated the recent post by Robert Kearney, University of Canberra on the CFood blog’s topic of MPAs:

The use of emotive one-liners and sensational headlines has exploded with modern social media, aided by a flailing journalism industry that is increasingly reliant on the number of clicks, not the individual or collective expertise of journalists or respondents or the quality of data underpinning assessments. Not surprisingly, politicians use the lack of critical assessment in the debate (a failure of governments) to manipulate the numbers to claim environmental responsibility.

It is on this pertinent observation, aided by the Lubchencho & Grorud-Colvert’s Policy Forum piece and the current momentum of the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s role in the “March for Science” that I provide my personal and academic reflection.

This is a curious time for science and for science communication. The rise of right-wing popularism in the United States culminated in November 2016 with the democratic election of Donald J. Trump. The new president is now presiding over a Cabinet of billionaires, as well as Scott Pruitt who has reportedly sued the EPA 14 times, who is now head of the EPA.

Why are we here today?

Indeed, I believe the current state of affairs where the women and men shout “drain the Swamp” has occurred for the simple reason that the system has not worked for them. As a progressive American (albeit living in Norway) who adamantly supported and voted for Hillary Clinton, it hurts me to think that the Left ideologically “left behind” so many Americans. As we Progressives lick our wounds of the devastating defeat to Trump, we must discuss how to rebound in an inclusive way where we put human, social and environmental values first, not special interests hell-bent on perpetual economic growth and corporate lobbies. Are elite scientists partly to blame?

I followed the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Facebook Live event on February 18, 2017 of the panel discussion “Defending Science and Scientific Integrity in the Age of President Trump” hosted at the AAAS Annual Meeting in Boston. The benefit of participating in such an event via social media, is that you get to see the live comments from other viewers around the world. The majority of these comments were, of course, pro-science with a strong hint of “speaking truth to power.” Jane Lubchenco herself was an active member on the invited panel. She encouraged the scientists in the audience to participate in the March for Science (scheduled for April 22, 2017) by taking “two non-scientists with you.” The reasoning here is to show that this in not a March By Scientists but a March For Science.

Sure, I can agree with that (I can take my 2 non-scientist daughters aged 6 and 4 with me, problem solved!), but I now will segue into the crux of the matter here: Who’s narrative are we nodding to anyway?

The recent editorial in Nature, “Researchers should reach beyond the science bubble” critiques the dogma coming from the AAAS leadership and members:

Just telling the same old stories won’t cut it. The most seductive of these stories — and certainly the one that scientists like to tell themselves and each other — is the simple narrative that investment in research feeds innovation and promotes economic growth. ‘It’s the economy, stupid’, so the saying goes, and as nations become a little less stupid by pushing against the frontiers of knowledge, so the benefits of all this new insight spread from the laboratory to the wider population, as improvements in the standard of living and quality of life.

I can’t help but reflect on this observation and the AAAS trying (unsuccessfully) to defend scientific integrity to the larger marine MPA debate. Lubchenco and Grorod-Colvert clearly advocate for the extended use of MPAs. They certainly have the right to advocate for something they believe in, but scientific integrity is also about knowing where to draw the line between science (including logical certainty) and non-science (this concept is well-known as the ”demarcation problem” in the Philsophy of Science).

Doug Wilson writes in his seminal work “The Paradoxes of Transparency” (p.36):

People make use of this rhetorical power of science. They try to present their values and interests as technical requirements, undermining the credibility of science in general when they do so. This phenomenon, then, might be called ‘inflating’ the science boundary.

It would be more responsible, from a scientific standpoint, not to make assumptions on such value-laden topics such as how to manage marine areas, but instead have a deliberative process. This is because there is not a technical scientific answer for non-technical problems. “Inflating the science boundary” is certainly an effective way to attempt to “speak truth to power” but it does not make it a best practice for scientists providing policy advice.

Robert Kearney critically writes:

Lubchenco and Grorud-Colvert acknowledge that “reserves cannot address all stressors.” They accept the need to “integrate reserves with other management measures” specifically identifying “issues such as bycatch, unsustainable and IUU fishing, climate change and ocean acidification.” Again the prominence they have given to fishing activities confirms bias in their prioritising of threats and objectives. It is surprising that the authors’ recognition that such fundamental fishing activities as bycatch and unsustainable fishing will not be adequately addressed by reserves has not shaken their belief that even selected areas will be “totally protected” and effective “ocean protection” provided by regulating extraction.

Kearney has pointed here to the very act of “inflating the science boundary.” There can never be a silver bullet answer to the Ocean’s conservation problems. Advocating for a technical solution is a misinterpretation for the salient question at hand of fair, legitimate and credible Ocean governance.

Doug Wilson (2009, pp 37–38) writes exactly on this topic (my emphasis added):

The temptation to try to change political, social or cultural phenomena into technical ones is always present. Environmental management requires us to address social behaviour, and so we search for techniques to do so. Management involves manipulation, and it is out of this tension that the question of governance arises when democratic societies seek to address social and environmental problems. This problem is exacerbated when actors seek to obscure rather than clarify the distinction between technical and cultural phenomena. The usual motivation for this is to make a policy choice appear as a technical necessity. As one scientist involved in environmental management put it ‘If … a manager suggests that a decision is based solely on scientifically-derived biological considerations, the manager either misunderstands the nature of science … or is deliberately trying to disguise … a value judgement’ (Decker et al. 1991, quoted in Minnia and McPeake 2001).

Lubchenco and Grorod-Colvert furthermore point out the need to “Bring users to the table” to increase the potential of successful MPA planning. Yes, I agree in principle that stakeholder participation and participatory practices can be helpful in fisheries and marine ecosystem management (see a recent paper I co-authored with Stephenson et al. 2016), but how do you engage would-be “MPA skeptics” or opponents around such a table for collaboration? The call to “Bring users to the table” in this context is under the assumption that an MPA tool is the solution to the problem at hand. The problem is already framed.

From Stephenson et al. 2016:

Because science for policy is inherently uncertain, with high stakes and value judgements that affect data interpretation, it is necessary to have “… the inclusion of an ever-growing set of legitimate participants in the process of quality assurance of the scientific outputs” (Funtowicz and Ravetz, 1993, p. 752).

Two of my colleagues, Andrea Saltelli and Silvio Funtowicz (currently Adjunct Professors at the Centre for the Study of the Sciences and the Humanities at the University of Bergen), recently wrote the following piece for TheConversation.com:

Still, … the reactions to Trump’s election transform the crisis of science into an American party-political affair: the intellectual left against the ignorant right. Science is thus dragged into the political arena, where critical and legitimate questions (institutional, constitutional and societal) are portrayed as a confrontation between science and anti-science.

Here’s an alternative to marching in the streets beating our chests as privileged white- and blue-collar scientists, fanning the flames started by disenfranchised American (and world) citizens: I rather suggest an informed internal discussion within the leadership and membership of the AAAS, for example, of how science can work for all citizens, not just the privileged few. I suggest that this conversation discusses how to collectively frame scientific questions (e.g. “should we have MPAs?” vs “What are the roles for multi-national, corporate, regional, and local responsibility and accountability in the marine sector?”) and how to practice processes “of quality assurance of the scientific outputs ” to include all citizens.

Further from the Nature editorial cited above:

But as this journal and others have pointed out, it is also clear that the needs of millions of people in the United States (and billions of people around the world) are not well enough served by the agendas and interests that drive much of modern science.

It is no secret that much research money into MPAs is financed by environmental organizations, with a clear agenda for environmental protection. The question then is if it is ethical for these organizations and their scientific supporters to use their voice for marine conservation to inflate the science boundary.

Personally, I want to protect a healthy and sustainable Ocean, our Earth’s most precious resource. Icons such as Sylvia Earle and Jane Lubchenco have positively influenced my career as a female fisheries scientist. I think MPAs can be an effective way to accomplish protection and sustainable utilization where we have scientific evidence of “spill-over” and greater overall resilience with protected areas. But, I do not prescribe to the idea that my evidence-based opinion to the question “Should we have 30% MPA coverage” is of greater worth that other people’s, especially since my livelihood is totally not dependent on whether a new MPA pops up here or there.

In conclusion, if I, as a fisheries scientist, was directly asked the following questions:

  • What is the utility of setting MPA targets? 
  • Do MPAs need to be No Take Zones (NTZs)?
  • What is the utility and wisdom of creating large ocean MPAs?

I would offer my response after a review of the literature (as done by esteemed colleagues, Serge Garcia, Nobuyuki Yagi, Chris Costello, Doug Butterworth, Kevern Cochrane, Magnus Johnson, Andrew Rosenberg, John Tanzer) more in the above style of Robert Kearney with a similar flair here of Magnus Johnson:

The misery that has historically been caused by unaccountable philanthropic organizations imposing what they thought best for “ignorant natives” is something we should be ashamed of. I hope we don’t seek to replicate the same in the marine world.

and less in the style of Lubchenco and Grorod-Colvert and here below of Chris Costello:

Most nature reserves on land are accomplished by the private sector. NGOs like The Nature Conservancy and individuals like Ted Turner provide enormous conservation benefits by buying parcels of land and removing most extractive uses. The traditional conservationist’s approach is to fight legal battles to implement them. An alternative is to allocate spatial rights to communities, cooperatives, individuals, fishing firms, etc. which they can sell or lease. This provides a platform for “private MPAs” to be established, just like terrestrial conservation. In a recently published study, Dan Kaffine and I found that creating “private MPA networks” would be significantly cheaper to achieve, and could be much more palatable to all parties because such networks tend to benefit adjacent fishing areas. From this point of view, the key challenge for government is to design and allocate spatial zones to make private MPA networks possible, while paying careful attention to distributional effects, equity, unintended consequences, etc.

My reading is that Johnson is progressing the type of realization that the Nature editors and Saltelli and Funtowicz are asking for (understanding the plurality of legitimate worldviews, and the power of the elite over the majority) while Costello appeals to the elitist capitalistic view that we should let the rich people sort out the world’s conservation problems. Who is right? That’s for the people to decide.

As mentioned, I have great respect for the work of Lubchenco and Grorod-Colvert and marine ecologists everywhere. However, as responsible scientists in the Age of Trump, I believe it is imperative that we understand the power of our scientific framing and role of our science communication. One of the essential virtues of science was previously articulated by the philosopher Karl Popper in his saying: “I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort we may get nearer to the truth.

Dorothy J. Dankel is a researcher and scientist at the University of Bergen and at FutureEarth in Norway. You can find her on twitter @DorothyDankel

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