Scientific Information in Fisheries Management: The Report of a Consortium for Oceanographic Research and Education Fisheries Workshop
February 18, 2000
Dr. Andrew Solow, Director, Marine Policy Center, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Massachusetts
Dr. Edward Houde, Professor, Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, University of Maryland, Solomons
Dr. Terrance Quinn, Professor, School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, University of Alaska, Juneau
Ms. Harriet Perry, Director, Center for Fisheries Research and Development, Gulf Coast Research Laboratory, University of Southern Mississippi, Ocean Springs
Dr. Lee Alverson, Chairman of the Board, Natural Resources Consultant, Inc., Seattle, Washington
Fisheries management in U.S. federal waters is governed by the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. Under the Act, regional fishery management councils are charged with preparing management plans within each of eight regions. Although responsibility for preparing management plans rests with the councils, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) must review the proposed plans for scientific and technical merit and for compliance with national
standards set out in Section 301 of the Act. Thus, final management authority rests with the Secretary of Commerce upon advice from NMFS.
Standard 2 of Section 301 reads in its entirety: “Conservation and management measures shall be based upon the best scientific information available.”
The Act provides no further elaboration of this standard and, in particular, provides no definition of the term “best scientific information available.” In response to a request by Congressman Young, a small group of knowledgeable fisheries scientists was convened under the auspices of the Consortium for Oceanographic Research and Education to comment on the interpretation of this standard.
The group considered two broad, related issues. The first issue concerned the meaning of the term “best scientific information available.” The group concluded that it is not possible to establish a specific definition or specific standards for identifying such information. However, it is both possible and desirable to establish procedural standards or principles to promote the quality of scientific information used in fisheries conservation and management.
The second issue considered by the group concerned specific problems with the process by which scientific information is currently incorporated into fisheries conservation and management. The group recognized that there is a lack of confidence by segments of the fishing industry and others in the way that scientific information is used in fisheries conservation and management. The group felt that this lack of confidence could be alleviated, at least to some extent, within the existing management structure.
STANDARDS FOR THE USE OF SCIENTIFIC INFORMATION
The first question considered by the group is whether it is possible to establish statutory standards for identifying the “ best scientific information available.” The group agreed that this is not possible. Science is by nature an evolutionary process. As the scientific enterprise proceeds, our understanding of the world changes. Results that are believed to be valid today may be modified or even overturned tomorrow. It is worth noting here that gains in scientific understanding tend to be incremental rather than revolutionary, so that fisheries conservation and management should not be overly sensitive to new results that may not withstand the test of time. In any case, it is difficult
to imagine specific standards of scientific excellence that are flexible enough to accommodate the evolutionary nature of science.
While the possibility of establishing standards for “the best scientific information available” seems remote, the group agreed that it is both possible and desirable to establish procedural standards or principles for the use of scientific information in fisheries conservation and management. The group identified five broad criteria for this purpose. First, the information must be relevant. If scientific information, however high its quality, has no bearing on management issues, then it has no place in the management process. Second, scientific information must pass independent scientific review. It is important to emphasize that this criterion would not be satisfied by the mere occurrence of independent scientific review: it requires that this review be generally positive. Third, the information must be provided on a timely basis, leaving adequate opportunity for review by interested parties. The group noted that, in certain instances, a timeliness requirement would need to be relaxed: for example, when highly relevant, high quality scientific results come to light at the last minute. Fourth, the performance of management measures and the science upon which they are based should be reevaluated in a regular and timely way. It is rare that detailed scientific issues are settled once and for all. For this reason, re-evaluation is a fundamental part of the scientific process. Fifth, the process by which information is brought into decision making should be open and broad-based. All relevant information should be considered, regardless of its source and, if particular information is not used in decision making, a clear rationale should be given.
The group believes that the five criteria listed above should be applied broadly to all scientific information used in the fisheries management process. However, it is possible to go further in establishing standards for specific activities within fisheries management. An excellent example is the checklist for fisheries stock assessment proposed in the National Research Council (1998) report Improving Fish Stock Assessment. It is noteworthy that, despite the specificity of the activity, this checklist provides ample flexibility for the adoption of new methods of data collection and analysis.
INCREASING PUBLIC CONFIDENCE IN FISHERIES SCIENCE
The second broad issue discussed by the group concerned ways in which industry and public confidence in the scientific basis for fisheries
management can be restored within the existing management framework. It should be stressed that practices to obtain, review, and apply information vary across the eight management regions and, as a result, the level of industry and public confidence in NMFS and the management councils also varies.
In some cases, problems arise from conflicts between the mandate of NMFS under the Magnuson-Stevens Act and its mandate under the Marine Mammals Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act. As marine mammals share habitat and, in some cases, interact directly or indirectly with commercial fish species, it is difficult to separate the protection of the former from the management and conservation of the latter. Actions taken by NMFS under the Marine Mammals Protection Act or the Endangered Species Act can have serious implications for fisheries management. However, because such actions may be taken outside the Magnuson-Stevens Act, different provisions for the use of scientific information may apply. Consequently, a review of these Acts to identify conflicts and propose solutions may be in order. Another problem is the perception that scientific information not originating in NMFS may be held to a higher standard for review than scientific information produced within the agency. For example, internal NMFS review is often held to be sufficient for agency information, yet external information is required to meet the more stringent standards, such as publication in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. This problem could be alleviated by requiring that all scientific information that is provided in a timely manner be reviewed by the regional Scientific and Statistical Committee (SSC) provided for under the Magnuson-Stevens Act. SSC could make an initial judgment regarding relevance and could go on to review relevant material. This might place a standing burden on the regional SSC—the use of which has been irregular both within and between regions—but it seems to be a natural way to use the framework set out by the Magnuson-Stevens Act to strengthen the use of scientific information in fisheries conservation and management. Independent reviews by groups other than SSCs have been and should continue to be used to address specific scientific issues as they arise. In particular, the National Research Council regularly conducts studies relating to fisheries assessment and management. Finally, collaborative data collection and research efforts should be encouraged among agency scientists, independent scientists, and representatives of industry and public interest groups. Not only would this build confidence among the different groups, but it would provide access to valuable, non-traditional sources of information.