CONTRIBUTORS

Shrimp science must stand up to peer review

Posted Feb. 28, 2012, at 1:02 p.m.

James Markos’ Feb. 12 opinion piece, “Shrimp industry gets cold shoulder,” appears logical in calling for new science to be used in shrimp management; science that Mr. Markos states was available but not used by shrimp regulators from Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Mr. Markos and the other authors state that regulators refused to raise the shrimp quota to a scientifically defensible level.

What Mr. Markos did not say was that the scientific opinions of the two researchers contracted by shrimp industry members had not undergone the rigorous scientific review called peer review. This process involves getting a number of independent scientists to test the validity of the information being presented, a process that did not occur with the alternative population models presented by the two scientists mentioned. Many shrimp industry members and the two scientists are well aware of the peer review needed for population models before they are used for management decisions.

Mr. Markos states that regulators went ahead using the old model “knowing it was flawed” but the recommendation of the peer review was that “new” science be considered in the next peer-reviewed benchmark assessment rather than being used in the annual Northern Shrimp Technical Committee updates. What the managers were asked to do is akin to asking a business owner to use a new business model and accounting package on very little notice without rigorous review of the new information.

The fishing industry and fishery managers have many examples of what can occur when peer-reviewed science is ignored. New England groundfish in the 1990s and striped bass on the Atlantic coast in the 1980s are two examples of the biological and economic damage that can

occur by using scientific arguments that haven’t been properly reviewed. The shrimp fishery itself has shown a pattern of significant population decline when harvest levels reach 5,000-6,000 metric tons a year which is, coincidentally, what was taken by the fishery in the 2010-2011 season.

At the 2009-2010 season setting meeting, there was much discussion about how to stay within the target harvest level by setting a conservative fishing season. Testimony by industry members suggested that the market and harvest conditions would limit the harvest to an acceptable level; the catch was about 28 percent above the science-based harvest target.

At that meeting, industry members asked what length of season could be set so that the industry would have the planning stability desired and needed by industry members and the shrimp market. One manager suggested that a 50-60 day season might fit the bill; industry members rejected that as far too short a season.

Observations of the shrimp fishery by industry, scientists and managers shows that the shrimp resource goes up and down with winter weather conditions. So, when shrimp abundance is up the industry can take more shrimp and when shrimp abundance is down the industry can take less shrimp. But when too many shrimp are taken, the resource declines and the fishermen, dealers and processors take an economic hit.

So, the reduced quota for the recently closed shrimp season was foreseen well in advance of the season setting meeting last fall.

Population assessment will always have uncertainty because scientists use a number of surveys, biological samples and history to try to figure out the status of a population that exists underwater and throughout the Gulf of Maine. It will never be perfect.

Are there things that can be done to make the situation better? For sure, including:

• Making sure that resources are available to get enough information to judge the health of the population.

• Those with new information can provide it to the peer-review process for which the process and calendar are publicly known.

• All participants should remind themselves that the shrimp fishery will never be stable because the shrimp population goes up and down.

• The state can put in place a system to allow real-time harvest monitoring, and industry members can commit to providing catch information in a timely manner.

The shrimp fishery will work best when managers, scientists and industry members work together to get the best information available, set seasons or harvest quotas that are reasonable based on the assessment and experience provided by past shrimp seasons and the shrimp harvest is monitored in a way that allows managers to know exactly what the catch has been. It takes time and a long-term view that I think got lost in the meetings, market conditions and new information that occurred recently in the shrimp fishery.

George Lapointe is a former Maine commissioner of Marine Resources. He now operates George Lapointe Consulting in Hallowell.

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