Fish science still taking a backseat
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?