Have We Lost Almost Everything in the Name of Science?

Red Snapper by Karen Talbot

“We have lost almost everything in the name of science. And so look at the big picture. Give us the freedom to fish.”

-Captain Matt McLeod

In my work as a freelance science writer focused on fisheries, I spend a lot of time in the field. I frequently find that fishers–those people who are daily on the water interacting with the resource–know what’s going on “out there.” Commercial fishers, for example, are some of the first to identify shifting populations of various species based on what they catch daily in their nets or traps between the periodic scientific trawls aimed at officially collecting the data. Likewise, recreational anglers are often first to identify changes in the ecosystem or in the health of a species they target because those anglers are on the water day-in and day-out and collectively cover far more water than any state or federal agency.

It is critical that fisheries managers take fisher observations into account when deciding how to best manage stocks, but it is equally important to not allow those observations to overrun the data. To drown out the science. Put another way, the plural of anecdote is not data.

When it comes to the ongoing controversy surrounding red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico, it feels like the anecdote often overshadows the data. Case-in-point: In public comments presented last week regarding a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) staff recommendation to have a 52-day, non-compliant red snapper fishing season in state waters this year, the commissioners heard time and again from fishers that there were more red snapper “out there” than there have been in years. Clearly, many argued, the data upon which the 11-day federal season had been set were wrong.

The Anecdote

Public Comment on FL 52-Day Red Snapper Season

Public Comment on FL 52-Day Red Snapper Season

Captain Matt McLeod (pictured left) of Pensacola-based Hot Spot Charters was one of several fishers to present observations based on years of fishing for red snapper. “The State of Florida needs to do a non-compliant season of 52 days–I would encourage the State of Florida to do a non-compliant season that’s much greater than 52 days,” McLeod said. He continued,

Our fishery is very successful. There’s no reason for us to be compliant with this madness of 11 days–it’s definitely not serving the constituents and the people of the State of Florida…. You [FWC Commissioners] are our representatives…and you’re asked again to make difficult decisions and your going to be asked in the future to make some real hard ones because this situation isn’t going anywhere until we can change things on a congressional level. Lots of people talk to you and other people about numbers and statistics and percentages and [total allowable catches] and allocations and all this stuff. I don’t so much. We have lost almost everything in the name of science. And so look at the big picture. Give us the freedom to fish.

McLeod was not alone in asking the FWC Commissioners to have Florida join Texas and Louisiana and announce non-compliance with federal fisheries managers. He was not alone in arguing that the abundance of red snapper he was seeing on the water shows the data used to justify a shorter season is wrong.

“We got plenty of fish,” said Captain Danny Tankersley, of Lady J Charters. “Probably nobody knows it no better than I do…. There’s more red snapper right now then I’ve seen since the seventies.”

Jimmy Forehand

Jimmy Forehand Presenting Public Comment to FWC Commissioners Meeting

“Well y’all come up with all these days that you can fish and days that you can’t fish,” said Jimmy Forehand in his public comment. “I’d just like to know some of your criteria because you’re just talking about nine miles offshore. Okay? I don’t even know if you all realize that fish migrate in and out. I mean the fish that are within nine miles come from offshore. The temperature of the water makes them come when it gets warmer; they leave when it gets colder, and I’d really like to know where you’re getting your data from…. I’m just wondering where you’re getting this data that you’re coming up with, when I’ve fished over 45 years and I have experience and I have information and all you commissions refuse to even consider my information. Because it’s fact, I mean I’m going out there.”

The Data

Central to the public debate regarding red snapper in the Gulf is the answer to the question: Are the anecdotal observations put forth by one fisher, five fishers or five hundred fishers facts? And if so, do those facts contradict the scientifically justifiable data? Do they contradict the best available science? Unfortunately, those questions did not enter the public discussion at last week’s FWC meeting.

Martha Bademan

Martha Bademan, FWC Section Leader, Division of Marine Fisheries Mgmt., Presenting Staff Opinion on a 52-Day, Non-Compliant Red Snapper Season

FWC is mandated by law to make science-based decisions. They certainly looked at the data and used them to make their decision to opt for a 52-day non-compliant red snapper season in the Gulf of Mexico this year. The FWC staffer responsible for presenting the staff opinion gave a brief presentation for why staff were recommending non-compliance, but there was little scientific discussion regarding the health of the stock overall and how fishing pressure may affect rebuilding efforts.

Unfortunately, none of the science was presented by a scientist or anyone else who shares the concerns of many fisheries biologists regarding the health of red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico. I think this is a shame. I worry the public is becoming less well versed in science and less receptive to data that don’t fit a personal point-of-view, an independent observation or an acceptable political position.

So what does the science show? What can we learn by looking at the data that might help contextualize, support or refute the anecdotal observation?

Rather than seriously consider that question, too many stakeholders appear to have drawn a line in the sand. On one side of that line is their personal experience–the anecdotal information. On the other side of that line is the science–the data that, for a variety of reasons ranging from past fisheries management mistakes to politics, is not to be trusted. This line in the sand essentially separates data and anecdote so the one is rendered useless in relation to the other. It might be likened to throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

A Hypothetical Public Comment by a Scientist

As I, a science writer, listened to public comment last week, I wondered what a scientist would say if they took the podium. Had a scientist presented public comment at the FWC meeting, this is what we might have heard regarding the data:

Red snapper recruitment, the number of new fishes entering the ecosystem from annual reproduction, is variable. Recruitment in some years is high and in other years it is low. In the vernacular of fisheries science, the species is “year-class dominant,” and every year doesn’t have to be a great year for recruitment. In fact, red snapper can likely maintain its population with a strong year every five to seven years. This is the good news.

In 2004 and 2006, red snapper had good years in terms of recruitment. Neither of these years was exceptionally good, but the fact that the two years of good recruitment were only separated by a year was exceptional. The result is that there are a lot of 8-10 year red snapper in the Gulf right now, and this has a lot to do with the anecdotal reports of fishermen catching more red snapper than they have since the 70s. They’re essentially right. The 2013 stock assessment confirms this, and there is a discernible upturn in the spawning stock biomass as the 2004 year class started to show up in landings in 2007. Yes, there are a lot of red snapper out there right now.

The trouble is that, while red snapper mature as early as two years old, it isn’t until 9-10 years of age that they begin to put most of their energy into reproduction. Female red snapper don’t reach their full reproductive potential until they are 12 or even 14 years old. The red snapper currently being caught are dominated by fish from the most recent strong year classes, and the data show that not enough fish are surviving to reach their reproductive potential.

Red snapper live to be 55 years old. In a study of more than 3000 red snapper by scientists at Louisiana State University, only a couple of the thousands of fish studied were found to be 15 years old. Only one was 19 years old and only one was 33-year old. The vast majority were young fish that have not reached their reproductive potential. To rebuild the stock–to return to anything close to a historic biomass, anything close to what we saw in the Gulf prior to 1960–the quotas would need to be much lower to allow enough red snapper to reach their full reproductive potential.

Yes there are a lot of red snapper in the Gulf, but the majority of those fish are too young to stave off the next population crash.

This is not the first time we are having this discussion. Every time there is a strong year class, the numbers go up. In response to more snapper (and lots of anecdotal observation about how many more snapper there are), the quotas go up. Within three to four years of increased quotas, however, overfishing occurs and the quotas have to come back down. The cyclical roller-coaster ride can be clearly seen in the data, and it should come as no surprise that the new 11 million pound quota will result in overfishing within a couple years as the members of the strong 2004 and 2006 year classes exit the fishery.

No scientist presented this data at last week’s meeting. Few fishers or other stakeholders are even really discussing the science. James Cowan, E.L. Abraham Distinguished Professor in Louisiana Environmental Studies at Louisiana State University, has been a vocal advocate of the data and the best available science insofar as red snapper are concerned. The above hypothetical public comment is based largely on discussions I have had with him, and I’ll leave you with a direct quotation from Cowan:

If the Gulf Council had been willing to protect the two most recent high year classes, or any strong year class for that matter, thus allowing fish to start to rebuild the age structure, we would not be talking about red snapper management now.  So we all agree that there is a lot of red snapper biomass in the Gulf right now, there is absolutely no doubt about that, but failure to manage in a way that permits rebuilding of the age structure means we are going to be on this treadmill for the foreseeable future.

Food for thought…

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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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2 Responses to Have We Lost Almost Everything in the Name of Science?

  1. Pingback: More Difficult News for New England Groundfishing Fleet | Good Catch Blog

  2. Pingback: Feds Recommend Increase in Gulf of Mexico Red Snapper Quota | Good Catch Blog

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