Mar 25 2016

CFOOD: Molly Lutcavage’s Atlantic Tuna Findings Should be Embraced, Not Discredited as Industry Spin

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Dr. Molly Lutcavage wrote a piece last week on Medium titled, Environmental Bullies, how conservation ideologues attack scientists who don’t agree with them. Though a summary follows, we encourage you all to read the article.

Lutcavage discusses her paper published this month in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that has been making headlines in NPR, but also on smaller online platforms (like Medium).

The paper presents evidence for a new spawning ground for Western Atlantic bluefin tuna that may suggest the species matures earlier and may be more resilient to harvesting than previously thought. The authors suggest that earlier age at maturity and additional spawning grounds likely means the stock biomass and sustainable exploitation rate are both higher than previously thought. Carl Safina and others have painted this finding as “controversial.”

Dr. Lutcavage maintains this “news” should not have been considered controversial. As long ago as the early 1990’s Lutcavage and other scientists working with the New England Aquarium had counted up to one hundred thousand adult bluefin tuna from spotter planes, a total much higher than other estimates of the total stock size. Such findings contradicted Safina and his 1992 push to have Atlantic bluefin listed as Appendix I endangered because as he has said, bluefin is like, “the last buffalo, on the brink of extinction.”

Dr. Lutcavage felt Safina and other NGOs like Pew Oceans have maligned her and her peers for their research because it would, “get in the way of fund-raising campaigns, messages to the media, book sales, rich donors, and perhaps the most insidious – attempts to influence US fisheries and ocean policies.”

Comment by John Sibert, an emeritus professor at the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology at the University of Hawaii.

I, like many other scientists, practice my profession with the expectation that my work will be used to improve management policies. However, scientists who choose to work on subjects that intersect with management of natural resources sometimes become targets of special interest pressures. Pressure to change or “spin” research results occurs more often than it should. Pressure arrives in many forms— usually as phone calls from colleagues, superiors, or the media; the pressure seldom arrives in writing.

I have had a long career spanning several fields and institutions and have been pressured to change my views on restriction of industrial activities in intertidal zones in estuaries, on the necessity of international tuna fisheries management agencies, on the limited role of commercial fishing in the deterioration of marine turtle populations, on the lack of accuracy and reliability of electronic fish tags, and on the inefficacy of marine protected areas for tuna conservation.

My most recent experience with pressure came from a stringer who writes for Science magazine. Some colleagues and I had just published a paper that analyzed area-based fishery management policies for conservation of bigeye tuna. Although the paper was very pessimistic about the use of MPAs for tuna fishery management, this particular stringer contacted me about MPAs. We had an exchange of emails in which he repeatedly tried to spin some earlier results on median lifetime displacements of skipjack and yellowfin tuna into an argument supporting creation of MPAs. We then made an appointment to talk “face to face” via Skype. His approach was to play word games with my replies to his questions in order to make it seem that my research supported MPAs. I repeatedly explained to him that our research showed that closing high-seas pockets had no effect whatsoever on the viability of tuna populations and that empirical evidence showed that the closure of the western high seas pockets in 2008 had in fact increased tuna catches. We hung up at that point, and I have no idea what he wrote for Science.

When critics run out of fact, some resort to personal attack. During discussions about turtle conservation in the early 2000s, an attorney for an environmental group told a committee of scientists that we were in effect a bunch of fishing industry apologists with no knowledge of turtles or population dynamics. More recently, my friend and collaborator, Molly Lutcavage was recently subject of a personal attack by Carl Safina after she and her colleagues published an important discovery of a new spawning area for Atlantic Bluefin Tuna. This discovery ought to push the International Commission of the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna to abandon its simplistic two stock approach to management of ABFT. (Whether ICCAT will actually change its approach is another question.) Safina made the outrageously false assertion that the authors’ “… main concern is not recovery, not conservation, but how their findings can allow additional exploitation.” Instead of attacking the messenger and implying that Lutcavage and her colleagues are industry tools, Safina should have embraced the science, supported tuna conservation, and applied pressure in ICCAT to change its antiquated management. By attempting to smear Lutcavage and her NOAA colleagues, he demeans science in general and those of us who try to apply scientific approaches to resource management in particular.


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