Attacks on the seafood industry lack scientific credibility

Published: 1 June 2016

It is not possible to have a sensible science-based discussion around the Simmons report (Simmons et al 2016) because the data and methods used remain unclear.

For science to be of value to society it must be impartial, transparent and repeatable. Their report demonstrates none of these hallmarks.

In early 2015, after the authors of the Simmons report publicly presaged their results, industry asked for a copy of their work and for the underlying data and computations. They declined. We subsequently found a copy of their ‘draft’ report on Pew’s website. Their ‘draft’ findings did not align with those in other publicly available independent assessments. Following this, we met with the authors, provided them with copies of the existing work and invited them to have their work independently reviewed by a recognised scientist of standing, such as Sir Peter Gluckman.

To date, they have declined to have their work independently reviewed in New Zealand.

The major findings in the final report released in May 2016 are indistinguishable from those in their ‘draft’ final report from 12 months earlier. NIWA’s studies are referenced in their final report, but the authors do not appear to have materially considered them in their findings.

In New Zealand, before any scientific information can be used to inform decisions on the sustainable management of New Zealand’s fisheries it must first meet the Ministry for Primary Industries’ Research and Science Information Standard for New Zealand Fisheries (MPI Information Standard).

If the authors wish their findings to be considered in the management of New Zealand’s fisheries, then they should submit these, along with the methodologies, for peer review through MPI’s science working groups, alongside all of the other science supporting the sustainable management of our fisheries.

We have asked them to do this. They have yet to do so.

It appears that their desired effect is to create sensation, rather than to seek solutions that will create positive changes to New Zealand’s fisheries management.

The deliberate leaking of a confidential study by the Ministry for Primary Industries (a pilot study designed to assess the level of interaction with protected species in inshore fisheries) coincidentally with the release of their final report, and the misuse of this report to give credence to their catch reconstruction speaks volumes of their intentions.

The authors have further revealed their intentions through their collusion with NABU, a European environmental organisation calling for a boycott of New Zealand seafood over the alleged cover-up of an endangered Maui dolphin death in 2014.

This call by German-based Dr Barbara Maas targets McDonalds, which uses New Zealand hoki because it is certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council, was timed to coincide with the release of the Simmons report.

Dr Maas claims that a Maui dolphin’s death was suppressed and provided a press release to the BBC and to other international news organisations. The fact is Dr Maas’s claim is untrue.

Has this been acknowledged by Simmons and their eNGO followers? It has not. There is a dolphin capture incident referred to in the Simmons report but this refers to a Hector’s dolphin, which are at much lower risk than Maui dolphins, and this capture was reported, as is required.

The question that should be being asked here is: “Why is a publicly funded institution, the University of Auckland’s Business School, and publicly funded researchers colluding to misconstrue information, the effect of which is to undermine a vital export sector?” Is this simply self-promotion or is it political as well?

The Simmons report is deeply politicised – one only needs to view the list of authors, their affiliations and their actions.

The Simmons report is part of an international project The Sea Around Us, headed by Dr Daniel Pauly of the University of British Columbia and funded by the Pew Charitable Trust.

Dr Pauly is well known for his anti-fishing stance and is on record for sensationally claiming the world’s oceans will run out of fish by mid-century and all we will have to eat are jellyfish. There is no scientific evidence to support this. These claims are based on a fundamental misunderstanding that catch levels can be used to assess the status of fish stocks, claims that do not accord with the science. These claims have been strongly refuted by many experienced, international fisheries scientists.

The catch reconstructions in the Simmons report cover 61 years, drawing heavily on anonymous interviews with 300 subjects, 200 of who were former crew on foreign-chartered vessels complaining about their treatment.

Historical stories from those who are discontent are no substitute for rigorous, quantitative, scientific enquiry.

The role of science is to put data before opinion, not the reverse.

What the report’s authors appear to have done is to compile every account of non-reported catches they could find, to arbitrarily transform these accounts into quantities of fish, and to then extrapolate these guesses across the entire industry to create their inflated figures.

Their bias is demonstrated in choosing to dismiss detailed studies by independent researchers, such as NIWA, which demonstrate the overall discard rate from observed vessels since 1991 is around 6.6 percent in the offshore fisheries, where the bulk of fish are caught.

The authors make claims that the actual catch is two to three times higher than the reported catch. If the authors’ findings seem incredible that is because they are, simply put, not credible.

When it comes to objective quantitative records of what actually occurred, if one had to choose between the written records of trained government observers and the memories of the disaffected on historical events, it is a no-brainer.

Because the authors are so vulnerable in this respect, since the report’s release Simmons has been publicly attempting to discredit NIWA’s findings. He claims NIWA’s findings are not accurate because they “do not tell us how much was dumped when the observer was asleep”. This is desperate stuff. The fact is all offshore vessels that MPI deems to require more scrutiny have two or more observers onboard for 24-hour coverage.

So they have run with sensation, rather than with science.

DWG has obtained information on the methodology Simmons et al. claim to have used from Pauly and Zeller 2016 (as submitted to Nature Communications).

Based on the tabulated data from this report for the New Zealand findings (FAO Area 81), we cannot reconstruct the findings of Simmons et al. Consequently, we have written to the authors for an explanation.

Simmons has personally made further public claims. He has challenged the New Zealand industry to make economic use of these purportedly large non-reported catches. In doing so he has come to believe his own fabrications. Simply put, in the real world the quantities of fish that are currently not landed are nowhere near the large quantities that he and the other authors have ‘guesstimated’.

We challenge Simmons to climb down from his ivory tower, to enter into the real world, and to go to sea on a deep water trawler to see for himself the actual level of discards. He will then learn first hand that their estimates of large quantities of discards in the deep water fleet, which takes 80 percent of the overall catch by volume, are in fact a fiction.

Like all commercial enterprises, the New Zealand seafood industry is not interested in waste and is constantly looking to make more from less. We have adopted the New Zealand Government’s aspirational goal to double export revenues by 2025 and we are on track to do so. If those in the University of Auckland’s Business School believe they know ways we can do this that are not already in practice, then we’d be only too pleased to learn of these. We have invited Simmons and his colleagues to address the Deepwater Group Board (i.e. the board representing deep water quota owners) on these ideas but to date they have declined to do so.

Where the Simmons et al. report does have some merit is in highlighting issues in the inshore fisheries that do deserve management review.

Industry is only too well aware of these, and has developed proposals to address the underlying and complex issues, and to rebalance aspects of the current management policies. These proposed changes have been developed with government but have yet to be implemented. The required policy changes include aligning the available quota with fish abundance, reviewing deemed values, and improving at-sea monitoring.

The public may not be generally aware that New Zealand law provides for non-quota species and undersized fish to be returned to the sea. Discarding this portion of the catch is a case of fishermen complying with the law, rather than breaking it.

As a demonstration of industry commitment to sustainability, the New Zealand fishing industry, in partnership with Government, has developed new trawl technology that will allow these unwanted fish to be returned to the sea alive and unharmed, a New Zealand innovation of world acclaim (Tiaki).

Increased electronic monitoring, as is proposed by Government and as is supported in principle by industry, will assist to address the symptoms but will not in itself address the root causes.

The Quota Management System has served New Zealand well for 30 years. It doesn’t provide all the answers, it does need fine-tuning, but it doesn’t need fundamental reform.

What the QMS has built is a renewable $1.7 billion export industry that provides major investment and employment, particularly in regional New Zealand, and a safe nutritious and healthy food source for millions of people. This is being put at risk by the most unwarranted and concerted attack yet seen on the commercial fishing industry and on the Ministry responsible for managing New Zealand’s fisheries.

An independent, international scientific review of the findings in Simmons report is being commissioned.

In the meantime, there is no doubt that these public attacks by researchers from the University of Auckland on New Zealand’s reputation amount to economic sabotage based on opinions masquerading as science.

George Clement is a former government fisheries management scientist and Inshore Fishing Skipper. He has been involved in fisheries development and management projects internationally. He was an active participant in the development and implementation of New Zealand’s QMS, the settlement of Maori fishing rights under the Treaty of Waitangi, successful Quota Owners’ Organisations, and the development of Benthic Protection Areas which close 30 per cent of New Zealand's Exclusive Economic Zone to bottom trawling, for which he won an environmental award as a distinguished New Zealander.

George is a former president of the Fishing Industry Association, the CEO of the Deepwater Group, the Executive Chairman of Seafood New Zealand, is a member of the executive of the international Association of Sustainable Fisheries, is on the Marine Stewardship Council’s Stakeholder Council, and is a fisheries advisor to the Prince of Wales’ Charities.