The science of sustainable seafood, explained

US Fisheries at Grave Risk if Government Stifles Science Data

US Fisheries at Grave Risk if Government Stifles Science Data

By John Sackton, Editor and Publisher of Seafoodnews.com


Those who know me have no doubt that my personal political opinions reflect more Massachusetts and California than Texas and Louisiana.  But in an industry that has a diverse range of political views, there has always been common ground when it comes to the business of fish.

We all support profitable and healthy fish companies; we support use of our seafood resources for food and encourage maximum sustainable production, and we support business accountability, accurate labeling, sustainability, and compliance with labor laws.

And most importantly, to get these things we support sound fisheries science. The genius of the fishery management system in place since the passage of the original 200 mile limit and the Magnuson Act in 1976 has been the commitment to make fisheries decisions based on sound science.

The regional management councils were set up to allow conflict: various fisheries stakeholders will not agree about gear, allocation, seasons, quota shares, observers or many other features of a modern fishery management and enforcement system.  But all agree on one thing, as required by law:  decisions must be made in accordance with the best scientific advice and the councils cannot legally overrule peer reviewed formal scientific conclusions.

We have two stories today, one from Canada, and one from Seattle, about the impacts of government suppression of scientific research for political purposes.  In Canada, the Harper government did not want scientists directly communicating with the public on issues that could make the government look bad or that might create public controversy over fish management.

The Canadians slashed the budget for fisheries science, drove many researchers out of the DFO, and damaged Canadian fisheries in ways that are taking years to repair.  For example, the science on Northern Cod is not robust enough to support scientific consensus on the path forward for that fishery despite evidence the stock is increasing.

In the US, the Trump administration is declaring war on the EPA, NASA, and some other science agencies.  They have frozen many grant programs, any new hiring, and created a wave of fear and uncertainty in universities and science agencies across the country.

The EPA, and NASA climate scientists conduct a lot of work necessary to understanding fish stocks.

In our story today, EPA funded scientists looking at Alaska’s salmon programs and researching protecting water quality in Bristol Bay find their work at risk.  A Tacoma researcher pointed out that research on clean water and salmon in Alaska helps support 14,000 fishing and related jobs in Bristol Bay.

That says nothing about the seafood industry’s spending further down the value chain to market and promote and distribute sockeye salmon.  The industry itself is likely to spend upwards of $1 million this year simply to make up for state budget shortfalls in needed observations and data gathering.

This week, with a freeze on EPA grants and hiring, more of Bristol Bay is at risk.  The University of Washington alone gets over $1 billion in science funding research from the government, including from many agencies targeted as ideologically impure by the Trump team.

NOAA scientists at the Dept. of Commerce do not work in a vacuum.  Like all scientists, they depend on a wide network of researchers and published data to build fish models used for fishery management.

With changing climate and water temperature emerging as a key driver of fish behavior, any ideological crusade against climate science is a crusade against our ability to harvest fish.

The industry is strongly backing Chris Oliver, currently executive director of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, for the fisheries administrator position at NOAA.  Oliver has deep and invaluable experience at the intersection of how science gets applied to fisheries and food production.  He will be a strong advocate for keeping up the scientific capabilities of NOAA.

But in the broader sense, our industry is at risk from those who would attack scientists and defund them.

We have built up the most successful example of sustainable fish management in the world, and global retailers have endorsed sustainability as a core sourcing requirement for virtually all of their seafood purchases.  Dismantling or crippling the science that undergirds our ability to have sustainable fisheries ends up limiting harvests, undermining consumer trust, increasing fish population volatility and boom and bust, and in short driving down the value of our entire wild capture industry.

That is too great a business risk to take for any ideology, and for that reason, the entire industry should speak with a single voice in defense of our climate science and other research, and against any political interference with our government funded science.  It is the foundation of our business success.

This editorial originally appeared here on Seafoodnews.com. It has been reprinted with permission.

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