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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.

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Butterworth wasted no time in responding. “Legitimately, there can be more than one defensible assessment,” he said. “There can be multiple views each indicating a different [regulatory] action. Are we going to get into that?”

There was a titter among NOAA employees in the room. “We generally don’t resort to voting or anything like that,” Weinberg said firmly. “The scientific process is typically one of consensus. That means a number of people think it’s the right thing to do, and some group of people can live with it.” 

Then they dove in. Palmer presented his model, took questions from the group, and Butterworth went over his alternate model, which used dome shaped selectivity to show a higher “biomass” of cod in the ocean.

“My concern is the thing that’s driving the dome selectivity is this period when you have almost no data. You have almost no information for these older ages of fish,” Dr. Dvora Hart, a stock assessment scientist with NOAA’s Population Dynamics branch, argued in response.

In an interview later that day, Hart told me that Butterworth has typically been hesitant to divulge the methods he uses to demonstrate dome shaped selectivity, and project more fish. “He doesn’t like to show the data,” she said. “He says you only interpret data through the model. I’m a scientist, I want to first look at the data.”

“It irritates me how much time we have to waste with Doug. He talks a lot and its purposeful, so other people won’t talk as much. People don’t want to cut him off because the industry will scream at them that they don’t get heard,” Hart said.

At the end of two weeks, Butterworth refused consensus.

Without an agreement, NOAA must send its report to peer review with both the government’s model and Butterworth’s model on the table. The peer review is scheduled to take place in December; it is unclear what will happen when the reviewers confront two models. “It’s only happened once before,” said Dr. Rago. “If you don’t reach consensus it gets a little murkier.”  The peer reviewers will either have to choose one model themselves, or the regulatory process will be in deadlock without a single model to serve as the “best available science.” 

Like an expert witness in litigation, Butterworth has used these tactics before – with great success. To the biologists who work at NOAA’s Woods Hole laboratory, he’s a regular presence at stock assessment meetings for pollock, white hake, yellowtail flounder, and more. He is always pushing dome shaped selectivity, that magical maneuver that produces a greater amount of fish.  

“Doug shows up looking for domes,” said Dr. Brooks. “I joke that he has to declare his domes before entering the country.”

When fishing is permitted at reasonably high levels, there is little reason for industry to develop its own science. The moment that government science begins to show a population trending downward, however, that can change – quickly. 

Recently, Butterworth was hired to present alternate science for menhaden, a keystone species in the Atlantic Ocean that is the main source of food for dozens of important marine predators. A stock assessment from 2010 found that the menhaden stock is at its lowest point on record – just 10 percent of menhaden remain compared to historic levels.

Butterworth was brought on beginning in 2011 by Omega Protein, a company that nets nearly half a billion pounds of menhaden each year. Recently, he has been meeting with fishery managers serving on the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), the agency that regulates the menhaden fishery, which is preparing to make a critical decision about whether to limit the menhaden harvest this coming December.

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