Fish sci­ence still tak­ing a back­seat

The Beacon (Gander) - - Editorial - Rus­sell Wanger­sky Rus­sell Wanger­sky is the At­lantic re­gional colum­nist for SaltWire Net­works. He can be reached at rus­sell.wanger­sky@ thetele­gram.com - Twit­ter: @wanger­sky.

In sci­ence, it’s crit­i­cally im­por­tant to com­pare ap­ples to ap­ples.

If you’re look­ing at com­par­ing data sets, you have to know that you’re us­ing the same com­par­a­tive pa­ram­e­ters, and that all parts of the equa­tion are the same.

But that might not be the case for a crit­i­cal fish­ery sur­vey be­ing done off Nova Sco­tia.

The coast guard ves­sel Al­fred Needler can’t do the sur­vey, be­cause it’s laid up in the St. John’s ship­yard un­der­go­ing re­fit — a re­fit that has had to be ex­tended af­ter ad­di­tional work was added. The Teleost, which nor­mally would have done the work if the Needler couldn’t do the five-week trawl sur­vey, is also laid up, and is also be­hind sched­ule.

So, the Depart­ment of Fish­eries and Oceans has con­tracted a trawler from pri­vate in­ter­ests, and will pay some­thing close to $300,000 to use the Liver­pool­based Mersey Ven­ture to do a short­ened 11-day trawl sur­vey on the Ge­orge’s Bank off Nova Sco­tia. Usu­ally, the win­ter Ge­orge’s Bank sur­vey runs for much longer.

The Needler is 36 years old and broke down in the midst of last year’s sur­vey. The Teleost is 30.

It’s tempt­ing to just say that hey, the work’s be­ing done, even if it’s be­ing done by dif­fer­ent ves­sels. But it’s a lot like see­ing a sports record with an as­ter­isk af­ter it: the re­sults will be based on dif­fer­ent ground rules, and won’t nec­es­sar­ily ac­cu­rately re­flect the same cir­cum­stances as the sci­ence done in pre­vi­ous years. And this is a longterm bench­mark­ing sur­vey: the Ge­orge’s Bank sur­vey has been done since 1987, at the same time and un­der the same terms.

Con­sider some­thing like the lump­fish; there’s not a lot known about the lump­fish biomass, be­cause not much sci­ence has been done on the species. But trawl sur­veys around this prov­ince, done at the same time ev­ery year and with the same gear and ves­sels, catch enough of the fish that sci­en­tists can ball­park the rel­a­tive health of the stock. Chang­ing how and when that work is done could rad­i­cally change the num­ber of lump­fish you catch and, in the process, of­fer up a com­par­i­son that sim­ply isn’t valid.

Lump­fish move. Plenty of fish move.

I’ve been writ­ing about this since 2005. In 2003 and 2004, many of DFO’s stock sci­ence re­ports out­lined that even dif­fer­ences be­tween the Needler and the Teleost — and dif­fer­ences in the du­ra­tion and date of trawl sur­veys — meant that the data they ob­tained couldn’t be used to ac­cu­rately es­ti­mate the health of a broad range of fish stocks.

How small a change can make a dif­fer­ence? Look at the 2003 stock sta­tus num­bers for Gulf cod: “The start of the sur­vey was about two weeks later than usual and some ar­eas were ei­ther un­sam­pled or un­der­sam­pled. Be­cause of these prob­lems, even af­ter ad­just­ing for missed ar­eas, the sur­vey re­sults in 2003 are not con­sid­ered to pro­vide an ac­cu­rate in­di­ca­tor of stock sta­tus.”

Twelve years later, it’s the same ves­sels, and some of the same prob­lems. It’s hard not to think that this year’s data won’t have com­par­a­tive gaps as well.

The At­lantic fish­ery is a crit­i­cal in­dus­try worth hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars — but if we can’t even set an ef­fec­tive and ac­cu­rate base­line for the health of fish stocks be­cause we don’t have de­pend­able ves­sels to do the work, well, then, we’re fish­ing in the dark. It seems like a risk we just shouldn’t be tak­ing.

It’s crit­i­cal that we have a con­stant, de­pend­able base­line, and that means get­ting con­sis­tent work done on time. With the new fed­eral gov­ern­ment, we were sup­posed to be com­ing out of a time when fed­eral sci­ence pro­grams were seen as an un­nec­es­sary ex­pense.

There are new sci­ence ves­sels on the hori­zon, but like the cur­rent re­fits the Teleost and the Needler, there’s a com­mon re­frain the ves­sels are be­ing built in a Bri­tish Columbia ship­yard, and they’re be­hind sched­ule.

Sci­ence is all about learn­ing — what is it we don’t seem to be learn­ing here?

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