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Science for Hire: Why Industry's Deep Pockets May Be Depleting the Last of Our Fisheries

To understand how this happens one must dig into the details of fisheries science -– a science that holds profound ramifications for the future of fish in our oceans.

Photo Credit: AFP


This story first appeared on  Public Trust Project.

It’s sunset in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, a time when the little town’s handful of shops board up for the night, and the lights click off at no fewer than six marine research institutes.

But at the far end of the town, one block from the churning Atlantic, 10 weary scientists sit around a big square table arguing about cod. They’ve been at it since 8 a.m..  Each has blocked two weeks in his or her calendar for this single purpose. 

The group is  meeting at the Woods Hole Aquarium, the oldest saltwater aquarium in the country, which also houses office space for 45 federal scientists working for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). There are no cod fish to be seen in the aquarium’s tanks. There aren’t many cod in the ocean either, compared to historic levels, and it is on this point that the scientists are squabbling.

It’s not that they all disagree. In fact, there is consensus on most points among nine NOAA scientists who are attending the meeting. Their job it is to analyze fish populations in New England waters for the federal government – among them cod, pollock, and flounder.

But one prominent dissenter withholds his consensus vote:  Doug Butterworth, the lone representative of the fishing industry at the session.

Butterworth is a renowned scientist based at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. He’s been lauded for his extensive contributions to the science of fishery management in many different countries. But he also has a controversial side job: he’s employed by commercial fishermen in the Gulf of Maine, who fly him into town every now and again to wage scientific war on the NOAA biologists.

It’s a role that has gained him some notoriety. “Doug seems like he’s got a retainer up here,” said Dr. Liz Brooks, a NOAA fisheries biologist who has worked on measuring pollock and cod populations.

Cod is an iconic species. Fishermen began harvesting them in the 17th century, when the fish were so abundant in New England it was said that you could walk across the sea on their backs. Over the centuries, cod’s abundance made it what Paul Greenberg called a “workaday fish,” in his lovely book Four Fish. Cod became a common, plentiful source of protein for the working class. 

By the 20th century, innovations in fishing technology led to the rise of giant, industrial factory ships, which began to displace small-scale cod fleets, and a new era of overfishing was born. In the mid 1990s, scientists feared the cod population would collapse altogether due to extreme fishing pressure.

Finally, the government made the tough call to close Georges Bank to commercial cod fishing in 1994. The waters – an elevated shelf of sea floor in the Gulf of Maine – were  once among the most productive fishing grounds in the nation. Since then, portions of Georges Bank and the Gulf of Maine have reopened to cod fishermen, but fishing pressure is just one-third of what it was 15 years ago. Even so, fishermen have been engaged in an elaborate dance with NOAA to prove that there are plenty of fish in the sea for the taking.   Doug Butterworth has been a key part of their strategy.

Butterworth’s tactic is always the same: to challenge the notion that fish populations are as small as the government says they are, helping to ward off regulations that reduce the amount of fish that industry is permitted to take from the sea. To understand how he operates, one must dig into the complex details of fisheries science – a science that holds profound ramifications for the future of fish in our oceans.

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