The science of sustainable seafood, explained

Environmental Bullies – Conservationists or Agenda-pushers?

Dr. Molly Lutcavage wrote a piece last week on Medium titled, Environmental Bullies, how conservation ideologues attack scientists who don’t agree with them. Though a summary follows, we encourage you all to read the article here.

Lutcavage discusses her paper published this month in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that has been making headlines in NPR, but also on smaller online platforms (like Medium).

The paper presents evidence for a new spawning ground for Western Atlantic bluefin tuna that may suggest the species matures earlier and may be more resilient to harvesting than previously thought. The authors suggest that earlier age at maturity and additional spawning grounds likely means the stock biomass and sustainable exploitation rate are both higher than previously thought. Carl Safina and others have painted this finding as “controversial.”

Dr. Lutcavage maintains this “news” should not have been considered controversial. As long ago as the early 1990’s Lutcavage and other scientists working with the New England Aquarium had counted up to one hundred thousand adult bluefin tuna from spotter planes, a total much higher than other estimates of the total stock size. Such findings contradicted Safina and his 1992 push to have Atlantic bluefin listed as Appendix I endangered because as he has said, bluefin is like, “the last buffalo, on the brink of extinction.”

Dr. Lutcavage felt Safina and other NGOs like Pew Oceans have maligned her and her peers for their research because it would, “get in the way of fund-raising campaigns, messages to the media, book sales, rich donors, and perhaps the most insidious – attempts to influence US fisheries and ocean policies.”

Comment by John Sibert, University of Hawaii

I, like many other scientists, practice my profession with the expectation that my work will be used to improve management policies. However, scientists who choose to work on subjects that intersect with management of natural resources sometimes become targets of special interest pressures. Pressure to change or “spin” research results occurs more often than it should. Pressure arrives in many forms— usually as phone calls from colleagues, superiors, or the media; the pressure seldom arrives in writing.

I have had a long career spanning several fields and institutions and have been pressured to change my views on restriction of industrial activities in intertidal zones in estuaries, on the necessity of international tuna fisheries management agencies, on the limited role of commercial fishing in the deterioration of marine turtle populations, on the lack of accuracy and reliability of electronic fish tags, and on the inefficacy of marine protected areas for tuna conservation.

My most recent experience with pressure came from a stringer who writes for Science magazine. Some colleagues and I had just published a paper that analyzed area-based fishery management policies for conservation of bigeye tuna. Although the paper was very pessimistic about the use of MPAs for tuna fishery management, this particular stringer contacted me about MPAs. We had an exchange of emails in which he repeatedly tried to spin some earlier results on median lifetime displacements of skipjack and yellowfin tuna into an argument supporting creation of MPAs. We then made an appointment to talk “face to face” via Skype. His approach was to play word games with my replies to his questions in order to make it seem that my research supported MPAs. I repeatedly explained to him that our research showed that closing high-seas pockets had no effect whatsoever on the viability of tuna populations and that empirical evidence showed that the closure of the western high seas pockets in 2008 had in fact increased tuna catches. We hung up at that point, and I have no idea what he wrote for Science.

When critics run out of fact, some resort to personal attack. During discussions about turtle conservation in the early 2000s, an attorney for an environmental group told a committee of scientists that we were in effect a bunch of fishing industry apologists with no knowledge of turtles or population dynamics. More recently, my friend and collaborator, Molly Lutcavage was recently subject of a personal attack by Carl Safina after she and her colleagues published an important discovery of a new spawning area for Atlantic Bluefin Tuna. This discovery ought to push the International Commission of the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna to abandon its simplistic two stock approach to management of ABFT. (Whether ICCAT will actually change its approach is another question.) Safina made the outrageously false assertion that the authors’ “… main concern is not recovery, not conservation, but how their findings can allow additional exploitation.”   Instead of attacking the messenger and implying that Lutcavage and her colleagues are industry tools, Safina should have embraced the science, supported tuna conservation, and applied pressure in ICCAT to change its antiquated management. By attempting to smear Lutcavage and her NOAA colleagues, he demeans science in general and those of us who try to apply scientific approaches to resource management in particular.

John Sibert is an emeritus professor at the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology at the University of Hawaii.

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10 Responses

    1. Because industry is always being talked about, and not enough people talk about the bullies on the other extreme.

  1. A way to understand what drives “environmental bullies” is to look up at who’s financing them. Such information should be transparent and available on request.
    It not always is. I tried once and found myself in a dead-end alley, which shouldn’t discourage others.

  2. Has anyone been able to find the Science magazine article that resulted? I can’t seem to but I’m not familiar with the website.

  3. My LPRC colleagues and I thank C-Food and Dr. John Sibert for taking the time to discuss the pernicious role of unbalanced advocacy in fisheries science. Soon after posting “Environmental Bullies….” , I received an overwhelming number of emails from scientists around the globe, expressing appreciation for calling it out- noting how they’d been subjected to similar, how advocacy had inserted itself in their national fisheries management process, or how science media had distorted their findings. Several of the writers were heads of fisheries labs or management organizations. Particularly distressing were stories from young scientists.

    As an aside to our PNAS paper, when our NEFSC colleagues confirmed Atlantic spawning across a large area and in time, it brought the final piece of evidence, the larval “smoking gun” that we’d long sought. Three graduate thesis projects (Goldstein et al., Knapp et al., Heinisch et al) from my lab had already re-confirmed sexual maturity at a younger age and size, using the latest endocrine analysis along with conventional histology methods, yet that body of peer reviewed work is still labelled as “controversial”, and remains so, not just by Pew but even by US fisheries scientists lacking expertise in reproduction biology. In fact the evidence on ABFT life history was long “hidden in plain sight”, to quote Dr. Dave Richardson, our PNAS study’s lead author.

    To Dr. Sibert’s point, politics still plays a heavy hand in federal fisheries science. In the case of Atlantic highly migratory species, the lack of an external scientific peer review panel for US ICCAT has impeded scientific progress and priorities on Atlantic tunas, billfish and sharks when we need it more than ever. In Atlantic HMS, AP and IAC panel seats are allocated across industry, conservation and recreational stakeholders, and in fact the token “science” seats are vetted and linked to one of those constituencies. This needs to change!

    If anything, my takeaway from 23 years of Atlantic bluefin experience is that fisheries scientists must remain vocal and defend the scientific process and transparency that allows for public trust. We need to do a better job of defending the science and experts under attack from idealogues and their organizations. Obviously, this can’t be done without significant funding for independent research and grad training.

    Isn’t it time for major donors and their philanthropic organizations to support the science needed to fill gaps in understanding? Paying only for conservation outreach, lobbying and “ocean sanctuaries”, when we lack basic information on species and their ecosystem dynamics, puts the cart before the horse.

  4. This link shows the reason why people distrust our fishery management council-at least here in the Gulf: http://www.hamiltonproject.org/assets/legacy/files/downloads_and_links/THP_Fisheries_event_transcript.pdf
    Red Snapper are more plentiful than ever. There is no biological basis for. catch share or tag system. Recs are being forced to accept a catch share plan we don’t need. The proceedings above lay out the plan. Our council meetings are so one-sided and they don’t listen to the recs. or often we are bullied and intimidated, so it is difficult to get our people go to meetings anymore. Craig Bergman commented on a post I made to the Tx. Game Wardens about poaching caused by the over-valuation of Red Snapper. We want state management. Bergman left a snide comment about it.

  5. Correction:
    In my original comment, I had an error. The man’s name was “Charlie Bergmann” not Craig Bergman. Thank you.

  6. I would love it if the new tuna study was believable because it would be both very interesting and very good news. Unfortunately it has fatal problems.

    You will not find any personal attack by me on Molly Lutcavage, but you will find her completely personal attack on me. In her attack she claims to remember a letter she says I wrote 20+ years ago but she says she can’t find it so she can’t actually tell us what I said. I don’t recall such a letter. But maybe she is confused, because her study at that time was reviewed by scientists from California, Tasmania, and New York who were asked to review it for ICCAT. They said the study was a waste of money. I have this in my files and looked at them just today. (No letter in that file by me on the subject.)

    I recently critiqued a 10-author paper in which Lutcavage is just one of those 10 authors. My critique went through peer review in the same journal their paper was published in, along with another critique by NOAA scientists making most of the same points I made about the immense weaknesses of their conclusions.

    A more detailed critique of their study is here, with links to the journal-published peer-reviewed critique: http://carlsafina.org/2016/08/24/bluefin-tuna-new-study-doesnt-hold-water/

    I’ve written about that study’s data distortion, distortion of references, weak methods, and illogical conclusions. None of it is personal. It is about weak science. Lutcavage’s very public rant about me, though, is both very personal and very unsupported. It is unprofessional, unbecoming, and has zero to do with science. For her it’s personal. For me it’s about a paper by a team of scientists whose claims are not supported by their data and whose conclusions do not follow logically even from their own claims.

  7. Molly Lutcavage can’t find the letter she claims I wrote about a study in the 1990s, but that is the “basis” for her rant. She doesn’t tell us that the Atlantic Tuna Commission (ICCAT) asked for an independent review of that study she was conducting (about which she says I wrote a letter); a trio of scientists from Australia, California, and New York did the evaluation ICCAT requested and concluded that Lutcavage’s study was, in so many words, a waste of money. I have that in my file on the issue. What I don’t have is the letter Molly claims I wrote. (Polacheck T, Pikitch E, Lo N, 1997, Evaluation and recommendations for the use of aerial surveys in the assessment of Atlantic Bluefin Tuna. ICCAT Working Document SCRS/97/73,41pp).
    Lutcavage doesn’t tell us that “her” most recent study (Richardson et al, in which many of the 9 co-authors are NOAA employees) drew an extraordinary rebuttal from—NOAA employees! It also drew a critique from me because Molly’s illogical conclusions essentially ruined what might have been an interesting paper. Here’s the original paper and then scroll, scroll, and on page 16 the NOAA scientists write saying why it’s claims are not supported by the data, then on p. 18 is my own critique of the original paper https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B94Btgc3NNKfUFRxNmNPM3dxemM/view.
    My more in-depth critique of Richardson et al, showing their distortions of references and unsupported assertions, is here: https://medium.com/@carlsafina/bluefin-tuna-new-study-doesnt-hold-water-6aa066d036f7#.c9bh818au.
    I am less an advocate than is Molly. I love good science and was at first jazzed to think that my understanding of depressed bluefin tuna populations was going to be shown to be wrong. Wouldn’t that be good news! Then I actually read Richardson et al and realized the numerous ways that data and references were distorted to fit pre-formed conclusions.
    Molly writes as though she has some special claim to being “the scientist.” It so happens that I have a PhD in Ecology and a very healthy string of publications (http://carlsafina.org/about-carl/list-of-works/). I have an endowed chair at a public university so really I don’t “have to sell books for a living” as Lutcavage claims; I just happen to write books. Does one now need to apologize for writing books?
    So who are the bullies here? The one who reads carefully, checks into references, and responds in detail? Or the one who calls me names and repeat unsupported accusations to defend unsupported claims.
    As for bullying, I’ve gotten death threats from fishermen. Very recently a fishermen wrote me a death wish. Has Molly ever been threatened by an environmentalist? I don’t think so.

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