The Only Thing Definitive is the Numbers

It’s so nebulous. The only thing you can say definitively is the numbers. – Rusty Gaudé, Louisiana Sea Grant Marine Extension Agent 

Gaudé was quoted in an article appearing today in the The Advocate about the health of fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico. As Amy Wold, the article’s author writes, “There are many variables, beyond the Deepwater Horizon, that play a part in the health of fisheries: a series of tropical storms, fishery population variations, opening of freshwater diversions to combat the oil leak, high water levels, cooler than normal spring, and both higher-than-normal and lower-than-normal salinities, just to cite a few.”

So we have to come come back to the numbers, right?

But if the national debate regarding fisheries is informing how we answer that question, then we are to believe the numbers themselves appear nebulous, shrouded in a preponderance of bravado and rhetoric. Fuzzy math and cherry-picked data.

A few days ago I wrote about an exchange between New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte and NOAA Northeast Regional Administrator John Bullard at a Senate Commerce Subcommittee meeting regarding New England fisheries. “I know there is a lot of dispute in terms of what data is being used to implement the catch shares program that is having an impact on the fishermen,” Ayotte said.

Bullard didn’t budge.

From a biological standpoint, the cuts needed to be made.

To Bullard, and many fisheries biologists who have studied the New England fishery, the numbers are clear. This isn’t to take attention away from the plight of the fishers and fisher communities who are reeling from quota cutbacks closing in on 80% for some species, but from a biological perspective, most fisheries biologists believe the data show there are simply not enough fish left to sustain the fishery at anything close to the level at which it has been fished.

While looking at the totality of a fishery–the anthropogenic stressors, natural cycles and the like–can appear pretty nebulous, the numbers shouldn’t be. In fisheries debates, however, as in other debates about resource utilization, science and environmental policy, the controversy in many cases isn’t really even about the numbers themselves anymore. Instead it has become about whose numbers are being used.

We live in a peculiar time. In high school, I sat in Mr. Rinker’s AP biology class thinking the solution, at least in large part, to the environmental issues about which I was learning was science. While it didn’t necessarily take scientists to identify the problems–things like dwindling biodiversity, species extinctions, deforestation–using scientific inquiry to study these problems and, ultimately, provide objective facts on which, in time and with considered effort, most everyone could agree seemed the obvious answer. With objective facts–with data–the polemic becomes less about the person on the other side of the table, aisle or fence and more about substance.

That makes sense to me.

Today, however, each side of the debate seems to have its own facts–its own experts, ideologues, scientists and pundits. And, in an increasingly polarized political landscape, much of the general populous has, wittingly or unwittingly, chosen a side in the debate. When they now turn on their television, radio or latest iGadget, they are rewarded with a stream of analysis, rhetoric and facts that validates their view. It validates their own belief in a set of objective facts.

Notice Ayotte’s phrasing at the Senate Commerce Subcommittee meeting. There is “a lot of dispute in terms of what data is being used,” she said. It’s an increasingly common end run around the data itself, but I guess end runs are necessary in this new landscape, when one side will present its facts elevated beyond reproach, substantiated by its experts and codified by its talking heads.

But there can’t really be two separate sets of diametrically opposed facts, can there?

There can’t be plenty of fish and very few fish at once.

About Ret Talbot

Ret Talbot is a freelance writer who covers fisheries at the intersection of science and sustainability. His work has appeared in publications such as National Geographic, Mongabay, Discover Magazine, Ocean Geographic and Coral Magazine. He lives on the coast of Maine with his wife, scientific illustrator Karen Talbot.
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