Feb 25 2021

From science to fake news: How ocean misinformation evolves

We have seen this cycle play out in fisheries with the headline that there won’t be any fish in the ocean by the year 2048. It started in 2006 when a group of scientists published a paper with the fun fact that at the rate of fisheries decline from decades ago, there would be no fish by 2048. It was a small part of the paper, meant to highlight a broader point that past fisheries management had been poor. However, the press release that accompanied the paper touted it as a significant finding leading to context-lacking news stories, hyperbolic headlines, and a pervasive notion that there won’t be any fish in the ocean by 2048. The paper’s original authors have stated that their findings are misconstrued and have worked to publish papers correcting them.

Brandolini’s law states that, “The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude larger than to produce it.” Fifteen years later, the 2048 myth continues to appear in articles across the internet.

The evolution of a bycatch myth

Now a new myth is rising to prominence: that global bycatch rates are as high as 40%.

Some background: The global authority on world fisheries, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), defines bycatch as, “the total catch of non-target animals.” This is the widely accepted definition.

Bycatch can be a useful indicator of fishery impacts on the broader ecosystem and provides important data that fishermen and fishery managers use to improve sustainability. Different fisheries have different rates of bycatch with varying degrees of impact. However, an important nuance is that bycatch is used or discarded. Used bycatch is generally accepted as sustainable so long as the non-target species isn’t a threatened species. Discards are wasteful and an unfortunate reality of food production. The most recent research showed that about 10% of fish have been discarded at sea over the past decade.

So how did 10% get inflated to 40%?

In 2009, three people working for NGOs (World Wildlife Fund & Dorset Wildlife Trust) and one unaffiliated person decided to write a paper arguing that the definition of “bycatch” needed to be redefined to include ALL catch from unmanaged fisheries. From their paper:

“The new bycatch definition is therefore defined in its simplest form as: Bycatch is catch that is either unused or unmanaged.”

The authors define “unmanaged” as catch that “does not have specific management to ensure the take is sustainable;” in contrast, a managed fishery will have “clearly defined measures specifically intended to ensure the sustainable capture of any species or groups of species within any fishing operation.” An example they gave in the paper is that, because a 1993 study showed that members of the Indian bottom trawling fleet used nets with illegal mesh, “such a fishery cannot be considered managed, as defined in this paper, [thus] the entire catch of the Indian bottom trawl fleet is considered bycatch.” By their definition, they calculated 56.3% of India’s total catch as bycatch.

Adding up all this calculation for each country brought them to declare 40.4% of the world’s catch as bycatch.

Researchers making arguments in the scientific literature is nothing new. Still, it is surprising to see peer-reviewers and editors accept a paper arguing for redefining a widely accepted and common term that would necessitate a paradigm shift in fishery management. Especially with assumptions that a 1993 finding applied to a 2009 definition.

Regardless, their new definition has not been adopted. FAO still uses the widely accepted definition of bycatch, and I could not find a single authoritative body that uses the WWF & Dorset definition.

However, if you thought the redefined, inflated numbers would lose the nuance of “unused or unmanaged” and would be used as a call to action by advocacy groups, you are correct.

Read the full article here


Original post: https://sustainablefisheries-uw.org/fisheries-misinformation/

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