Flounder findings rooted in agenda drive “science”

On June 21, a letter I drafted about the Transboundary Resource Assessment Committee’s (“TRAC”) scientific process was published in the Gloucester Times.

This letter is a follow-up to the TRAC meeting held on June 23-26 and the resulting George’s Bank Yellowtail Flounder Catch Advice.
The TRAC is an international agreement between the United States and Canada under which yearly catch limits for George’s Bank yellowtail, cod, and haddock are determined and allocated appropriately to each Nation. The “catch advice,” particularly in the case of yellowtail flounder, is not only important to the groundfish fishery, but also as a choke species for the scallop and several other New England fisheries.

At the latest TRAC meetings, held in late June, the TRAC appropriately determined that the Virtual Population Assessment (VPA) model should be abandoned because there were several identified scientific issues with it, such as major diagnostic issues and, importantly, its inability to accurately estimate the yellowtail population.

At this meeting the TRAC also concluded that it would make two “catch advice” recommendations to the Transboundary Management Guidance Committee (TMGC, the final quota decision maker):

Utilize the status quo of 400 metric tons or … Utilize a biomass estimate of 2,213 mt (the three government surveys) with catch advice of 44 mt to 354 mt. It is a step in the right direction that the TRAC will present multiple options to the TMGC, while unfortunately, the rationale behind the final “catch advice” numbers is both concerning and confusing. Interestingly, and only two months after the “empirical approach” meeting, the formally agreed upon 25 percent exploitation rate was lowered to 2-16 percent. The rationale for the decrease is that catch curves indicate that total yellowtail mortality is higher, and the VPA model indicates recruitment (new fish), which impacts exploitation rate from ages 2 and 3, is lower. However, this new scientific equation does not ring true.

First, in terms of total mortality, it was agreed upon by the scientific community at the “empirical approach” meeting to increase the natural mortality from 0.2 to 0.4, which seems appropriate. Landings from fishermen are down; therefore, it is reasonable to presume that fishing mortality is down. Therefore, the apparent increase in total mortality implies that natural mortality is even greater than 0.4.

This may be the case, but no scientific evidence was presented at the TRAC meeting to support it. The higher mortality rate is a back of the envelope appropriation and not the “best scientific information available.”

Second, in regards to the VPA model recruitment concerns, the TRAC first decided to abandon the VPA model because of its scientific flaws, but then utilized the VPA model to justify its conclusion that the exploitation rate should decrease.  To reject the model in one instance because it’s scientifically unreliable, then utilize it in another to support a conclusion creates confusion, is not scientifically appropriate — and is business as usual for the Northeast Fisheries Science Center.

The ultimate thumb on the scale approach is the TRAC’s shift from a wing spread to a door spread analysis, which increases the swept area and significantly decreases the biomass, with little to no scientific explanation about why, other than to skew the formula for exploitation.

It is time a proper explanation about the TRACs analytical maneuvers are provided to the public. Consistency from one meeting to another must exist. Yet NEFSC and the TRAC instead presented lower and lower numbers about yellowtail at each meeting, with virtually no scientific support.

NEFSC’s lack of scientific explanation and evidence suggests that its actions are a deliberate attempt to further a bureaucratic agenda, rather than basing “catch advice” on real, up to date, and scientifically vetted information. These allocations will have real and significant consequences to the stability and future of fishing communities.

Transparency through a clear explanation and scientific reasoning that is supported by real time data must be presented to the public and stakeholders in order to build trust between the parties. Now is the time to practice what NEFSC has been promising to do — work collaboratively to create a sustainable fishery and sustainable fishing communities.

This letter was originally published in the Gloucester Times on July 18, 2014.