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Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Flotsam and Jetsam

More wise words from across the water by Nils Stope on the hottest topic in fishing - recognising the science that determines fish stocks and ultimately the quotas by which EU fish are managed should include data contributed by fishermen themselves.

“Flotsam is floating wreckage of a ship or its cargo. Jetsam is part of a ship, its equipment, or its cargo that is purpose-fully cast overboard or jettisoned to lighten the load in time of distress and that sinks or is washed ashore” ( They are used together to indicate potentially valuable materials floating on the seas’ surface.

I use this title for periodic FishNets in which I address several issues that should be of value to anyone with an interest in oceans and fisheries in a somewhat abbreviated manner.

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First off, a mea culpa

In the last FishNet, which was distributed in early October, I referred to “the most recent cod assessment (or actually an almost-assessment).” It was pointed out to me, and rightfully so, that this could have left readers with the impression that this was somewhat less accurate and/or reliable than a “real” assessment of the cod stock. I was assured that this wasn’t the case and was provided with a wealth of information demonstrating that it wasn’t, so I’ll to take this opportunity to put things right. I also must point out, however, that there are groups and individuals associated with the New England groundfish fishery who take exception to the results of this assessment. 

“Anecdotal Information” is what the professional fisheries people call it, usually dismissively.

“In addition to the economic benefits of an expanded fishery industry, the fisheries science and management culture benefited from the private, public, academic partnership, increasing the level of trust among stakeholders and respect for the expertise of partners. Through this approach, the project has demonstrated that taking input from all aspects of the community can leverage scientific capabilities with the applied ecological expertise of the commercial fishing industry.”(IOOS’s - Integrated Ocean Observing System’s - Modeling Advancing Fisheries Management and Improving Butterfish Population Assessments at

If things were as they should be in fisheries management, there would be no reason for IOOS to include the words underlined above in their announcement of one of the more successful cooperative research programs that has taken place in the mid-Atlantic. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case, and much – though certainly not all – of the reason for that is the fact that fisheries managers and fisheries scientists generally discount most of what working fishermen have to say about the status of particular fisheries, about the ocean ecosystem or anything else that has to do with successfully harvesting fish or shellfish. I suspect that in large part this has to do with fishermen’s paychecks depending on them catching those fish which they are telling the managers and/or scientists about, which is a kind of scary way of looking at things. Consider the many financial transactions, ranging from buying a newspaper to buying a house, that you are regularly a part of. In the majority of these transactions you are dependent on the honesty of the other party or parties in the transactions and more often than not one or all of the parties are in a position to “profit” from acting dishonestly. Does this make them – or what they have to say about the transaction – immediately suspect? If that were the case an awful lot of transactions would never be transacted.

What brought this subject up was the article a review of the past, the present, and the future of fishers’ knowledge research: a challenge to established fisheries science by Edward J. Hind at the School of Political Science and Sociology, National University of Ireland, Galway, Ireland that was published in the issue of the ICES (International Council for the Exploration of the Sea) Journal of Marine Science in October, 2104.

According to the author, “documented to be approaching at least a century old, fishers’ knowledge research is an approach to fisheries science that to date has struggled to take a place at the top table of fisheries science. Its focus is the study of the experiential knowledge of marine and freshwater environments that fish harvesters accumulate while operating in their respective fisheries. Those who seek in different guises to achieve greater consideration for this experiential knowledge in mainstream fisheries science and management can be considered fishers’ knowledge researchers.” Yet, according to him, and according to many – and I was tempted to say most – of us who observe and/or participate in the fisheries management process from the fishermen’s perspective, after these 100 plus years “the profile of fishers’ knowledge research compared with established approaches towards conducting fisheries science can currently be described as marginal.”

Scientists are never going to know for certain how many fish are in a given area, how long those that are in that area are going to remain there, what factors will have an effect on where they are, how successful next year’s spawning will be, what the larval, juvenile and adult mortality rates will be over the life span of the species, or much of anything else above and beyond what the few specimens that they are immediately observing are doing.

It seems like a successful fisherman must have a broader perspective than a fisheries scientists. Fishing success depends on observing what’s going on today and knowing enough history to put today’s observations into their proper context. And successful fishermen generally have a community of fishermen that they share their observations with. It might be done with the precision that a fisheries scientist or manager thinks is necessary for legitimacy, but it’s done precisely enough for the fishermen to put fish in the hold and food, fuel in the boat and food on the table.

Below are a quotes from Hind’s paper that I think are particularly relevant:

“As with any knowledge system, the picture LEK (Local Ecological Knowledge) produces will be partial. However, we have found that LEK can be an invaluable addition to scientific and historical archival resources that are also partial. Harvesters are and were the central human actors in these social ecological systems and their observations and interpretations can contribute significantly to our efforts to understand the interactions in these systems.” ( Murray, G., Neis, B., Schneider,D. C., Ings,D., Gosse, K.,Whalen, J., and Palmer, C. T. 2008a. Opening the black box: methods, procedures, and challenges in the historical reconstruction of socio-ecological systems. In Making and Moving Knowledge: Interdisciplinarity and Community-Based Research in a World on the Edge, pp. 100–120. Ed. by J. S. Lutz, and B. Neis. McGill-Queens University Press, Montreal, Kingston, Canada.)

“Finding ways to make comparisons between fishers’ observations and data drawn from more traditional scientific sources could improve the potential for more informed and more accepted decisions on stock status and management.” (Neis, B., Schneider, D. C., Felt, L. F., Haedrich, R. L., Fischer, J., and Hutchings, J. A. 1999. Fisheries assessment: what can be learned from interviewing resource users? Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, 56: 1949–1963.)

“It is suggested that analysis of approximate data, quickly acquired at low cost from fishers through interviews, can be used to supplement other data-recording systems or used independently to document the changes that have occurred in the resource base over a lifetime of fishing. The results can be used to guide the assessment and management of resources to conserve ecosystems and livelihoods.” (Tesfamichael, D., Pitcher, T. J., and Pauly, D. 2014. Assessing changes in fisheries using fishers’ knowledge to generate long time series of catch rates: a case study from the Red Sea. Ecology and Society, 19. Available at:

Hind closes by presenting three possible futures for fishers’ knowledge research. The first suggests that “fishers knowledge research could become obsolete.” The second suggests that “fishery-dependent data research may be the only approach mainstreamed in fisheries science” and the third is that “multiple approaches to fishers’ knowledge research may be mainstreamed in fisheries science.” Considering the wealth of multi-generational knowledge that is resident in our coastal fishing communities, let’s hope that the first possible future is unthinkable, that the second is recognized as automatically limiting the value of fishermens’ contributions to the management process and that, as suggested in the last approach, fishermen’s input is finally recognized as being a critical part of the management process. He follows this with “the warning of Robert Johannes’ et al. (Johannes, R. E., Freeman, M. M. R., and Hamilton, R. J. 2000. Ignore fishers’ knowledge and miss the boat. Fish and Fisheries, 1: 257–271.) to any fisheries scientist who continues to ignore all or some dimensions of fishers’ knowledge is still pertinent. The sizeable literature reviewed in this paper includes many examples of where referencing fishers’ knowledge did prevent or could have prevented further fish stock declines when mainstream fisheries science had failed to provide answers. It is likely that future fishers’ knowledge literature will provide further examples of how the consideration of fishers’ knowledge could complement existing biological, ecological, and economic approaches to fisheries science to deliver better management outcomes. With the fisheries paradi

We can only hope that the people in the fisheries management process those words to heart.When you’re used to those big bucks you’ve gotta keep ‘em coming in

It’s hard to imagine that anyone reading this has managed to avoid one of the anti-fishing claque’s most recent declarations of disaster/calls to arms (and for donations) campaigns, the one dealing with the misidentification of various species of fish. According to the usual plethora of reports and press releases and the usual uninformed and extensive media coverage that those reports and releases generated, unscrupulous members of the fish and seafood industry (in the various foundation-funded campaigns are there any other kind?) were mislabeling not-so-valuable ocean critters as much more valuable critters, pricing them accordingly and raking in even more tainted profits.

Needless to say this was reported as a significant and growing threat and needed to be stopped immediately. And the principal way of stopping it was by increasing the administrative burden placed on an already overburdened fish and seafood industry by requiring its members to identify where, when and how their fish and shellfish were caught. Traceability, it was called.

As a result of all of this alarmism the federal Food and Drug Administration completed a study involving the DNA testing of 696 samples at the domestic wholesale distribution chain prior to retail sale. Limited samples were also taken at the point of import. The species sampled were those with a history of being misidentified. Samples were taken in Alabama, California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Maine, Mississippi (if any FDA people read this, please note that Mississippi has four s’s), New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Vermont and Washington. The fish that were sampled were cod, haddock, catfish, basa, swai, snapper and grouper. There were three series of samples.

Imagine my surprise – yea, right! – when I read that “the three sampling projects found that the fish species was correctly labeled 85% of the time.” In total 174 lots of samples were tested and 26 were found to be incorrectly labelled, but 25 of those 26 were in the snapper and grouper categories (the remaining sample was Pangasius hypopthalamus mislabeled as Pangasius bocourti). However, 14 of the 18 mislabeled snapper samples were different species of snapper than what they were identified as, as were 4 of the 7 mislabeled grouper. That’s about like the difference between Angus, Hereford and Longhorn beef.

Only 7 out of 174 samples could be said to have been egregiously mislabeled (for those of you who had – a still remember – Biology 101, identified incorrectly at the Family level or above). That’s not much of a crisis in seafood labeling, and it surely doesn’t require any additional legislation or any additional administrative burdens inflicted on fish and seafood businesses.

What it does require is beefed up seafood inspection at the federal, state and local levels, something that the industry has been seeking for years.

From the breakout of the results of the samples tested by the FDA:

For fish for which 5 or more samples were collected and tested (85% labeled properly)

  • 100% (5 out of 5) of the catfish samples were labeled properly
  • 100% (15 out of 15) of the cod samples were labeled properly
  • 89% (57 out of 64) of the grouper samples were labeled properly
  • 100% (11 out of 11) of the haddock samples were labeled properly
  • 63% (31 out of 49) of the snapper samples were labeled properly
  • 100% (20 out of 20) of the swai samples were labeled correctly

For fish for which fewer than 5 samples were collected and tested (90% labeled properly)

  • 0% (0 out of 1) of the basa samples were labeled properly
  • 100% (1 out of 1) of the mackerel samples were labeled properly
  • 100% (1 out of 1) of the mahi mahi samples were labeled properly
  • 100% (1 out of 1) of the monkfish samples were labeled properly
  • 100% (3 out of 3) of the orange roughy samples were labeled properly
  • 100% (1 out of 1) of the swordfish samples were labeled properly
  • 100% (2 out of 2) of the tilapia samples were labeled properly

It sure seems like the foundation-funded ENGOs are beating another empty drum, protecting neither the fish nor the consumers from anything they need protecting from, but keeping that cash flow flowing. Unfortunately, for most of them it appears as if that’s what it’s all about. And for them the fact that fishermen and fishing dependent businesses are going to pay for it probably makes it that much better.