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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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At these meetings, Butterworth has submitted a paper entitled “Is Overfishing of Atlantic Menhaden Occurring?” which argues that there is a “clear and sound statistical justification for the introduction of domed selectivity” – meaning there’s more fish out there than you think. Evidence for using the doming is not just statistical, the paper argues, “it is a reflection of emigration of the older menhaden outside (primarily to the north of) customary fishing grounds.”

“Talk about making decisions with limited data,” said Lynn Fegley, the associate director of Maryland’s Fisheries Service, who sits on the ASMFC and has met with Butterworth. “What this hinges on is the idea that there are fish in the northern waters.”

There are no data showing that menhaden are present in northern waters, save for an aerial study conducted by Dr. James Sulikowski, another scientist hired by Omega Protein, who found a limited number of menhaden schooling in the north. Sulikowski himself told me that his research would have to continue for a number of years before it would be statistically significant. 

Butterworth’s interventions have had an impact.

In the case of pollock, dome shaped selectivity has translated into huge increases in the quotas allowed for fishermen. In 2010, NOAA scientists presented a stock assessment model that found some limited dome selectivity in the pollock fishery. “Butterworth came in with really high domes and extremely high abundance,” said a NOAA biologist who worked on pollock. The New England Fishery Management Council chose Butterworth’s version of the dome, which enabled the agency to increase catch limits, or quotas, for pollock by 600 percent.

But data suggest that those huge increases in quotas haven’t translated into more fish harvested by industry.

As of Oct. 31, the mid point of 2012 fishing season, pollock fishermen had caught just 28 percent of their allocated Gulf of Maine pollock quota. Cod fishermen had caught 25 percent of theirs, according to data collected by NOAA.

“The most likely explanation for this is that fishermen simply aren’t finding the fish.” Michael Conathan, director of ocean policy at the Center for American Progress, wrote on his organization’s website

Butterworth defends the right of commercial fishing interests to have a seat at the table.

“Given that I represent industry I feel I am obligated [to speak up] in discussions if a feature that I believe is of importance and is relevant to industry interest is being overlooked. If I am there as a representative of industry I will make sure that it is on the table,” Butterworth told me in a phone interview.

“There is a line in this game between what’s acceptable and what’s unacceptable and I think I have stayed in the bounds of what’s acceptable,” he said.

He cited his work for the government of South Africa, in which he has had to defend the government’s position against private industry. “I’ve had my own battles with industry consultants,” he admitted.

Does Butterworth’s outsized role in Atlantic stock assessments fundamentally undermine good science? Because biologists involved in the process strive for consensus, Butterworth’s flair for casting doubt on the work of government scientists means that he enjoys near veto power.

Some NOAA employees have questioned whether industry involvement complicates their efforts to conduct research that would ultimately improve the stock assessments in the long term.

“If I had time I would do research, and look at more robust ways to capture uncertainty in the assessment models. That has never happened because there’s always a crisis,” said Dr. Liz Brooks. “Someone is always saying ‘your models don’t work, do the same assessment over with same data.’”

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