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Scientist and Policy Advocate:
Mutually Exclusive Professions
Warnings about the collapse of fisheries are a staple of NGO rhetoric. The Sierra Club, for example, states that "Fisheries are collapsing." Greenpeace has issued a press release titled "World's Largest Food Fishery in Danger of Collapse" and EarthJustice quotes a San Francisco NGO leader saying that "years of mismanagement have driven the fisheries to near collapse."

What if they are wrong? What if the world's fisheries are not collapsing? What if scientists need to stop substituting apocalyptic prophecies in place of data and rational discussion?

An intriguing post on the Cool Green Science Blog by a former employee of NOAA's fisheries division questions the notion that the world's fisheries are collapsing and more broadly questions the use of scare tactics by scientists. Peter Kareiva writes:

"when scientists analyze and extrapolate data using methods that are open to debate and then firmly conclude with statements such as, 'Our analyses suggest that business-as-usual would foreshadow serious threats to global food security, coastal water quality, and ecosystem stability, affecting current and future generations,' I wonder what is being accomplished?"

Kareiva cites and reprints an article by a professor of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington, "Apocalypse Forestalled: Why All the World's Fisheries Aren't Collapsing." In the article, Professor Hilborn writes,

"If you have paid any attention to the conservation literature or science journalism over the last five years, you likely have gotten the impression that our oceans are so poorly managed that they soon will be empty of fish - unless governments order drastic curtailment of current fishing practices, including the establishment of huge no-take zones across great swaths of the oceans."

The article debunks many popular conceptions about fisheries. More importantly, he calls for an end to alarmism, "Apocalyptic assertions that fisheries management is failing are counter-productive - not only because these assertions are untrue, but because they fail to recognize the long, hard work of fishery managers, scientists and stakeholders in the many places where management is working."

The real lesson, one that extends far beyond fisheries, is that scientific papers do not automatically translate to policy decisions. Moreover, if scientists act as policy advocates, their science cannot be taken seriously.

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