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When science is not the solution: our failure to manage the Pacific tuna fishery

In a recent post, I was hopeful that a meeting in Guam would take steps to protect the tuna fishery in the Pacific. Unfortunately, the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission ignored the advice of their own scientific committee and chose to do nothing at all. The situation is complex – politically, socially and economically.

Some of the Pacific island states who belong to this organisation rely on the tuna fishery for up to half of their gross domestic production. So it is understandable, on the one hand, that they do not want to limit their ability to benefit from this renewable resource. On the other hand, the science is not in the least ambiguous. Without effective management, this fishery is not sustainable. Why would any nation put their future at risk by not addressing the situation?

What is going on? As a scientist, I feel concerned when the best available advice is ignored. At the same time, the public seems to feel betrayed by science, which has for many years been making our lives easier. Why now, does science want to make our lives hard?

In the twentieth century, science seemed to have the solution to all our problems. Now in the twenty-first century, science is telling people that we need to change our behaviour and live more gently on the earth. Ironically, the two are not unlinked.

In the case of ocean fishing, it was technology that allowed us to harvest tuna so efficiently that some species have now became threatened. Science made us so successful that we need to regulate the fishery if we want to continue eating ocean caught tuna into the future.

Similarly, river regulation in the Murray Darling Basin allowed us to turn parts of a dry continent into a productive food basket, but at what cost? Now we need people to reduce their reliance on water so we can ensure the health of the environment. Protecting the river will be good for the economy and future of our communities, but many do not want to have to change their behaviour; they are ready to fight the plan.

My point is that science cannot save us from ourselves. And I am deeply surprised when scientists are accused of having hidden agendas and political motivations. Scientists, by and large, avoid those pitfalls both through training and temperament. What scientists do is think hard, test ideas against the facts, and use logic to make conclusions and predictions.
We only speak out when we are fairly certain of our conclusions, and since we tend to be conflict averse, we do not make tough recommendations unless we feel we have no choice.

The truth is that nobody wants the tuna fishery to fail, the climate to change or the rivers to run dry. But to prevent these possible futures, we need people, politicians and businesses to listen to wise counsel.

Some might say that scientists need to learn how to become politically astute, economically relevant or socially adept. I do not think we could do so and continue to do our jobs properly. A certain amount of introspection, a degree of separation from the outcome of our enquiries, and a big dash of pedantic obsession is required to ask the right questions, gather useful data and develop robust models.

But what can we do when the solutions to global problems do not exist in the realm of science or technology? When solutions require individuals, businesses and governments to change their behaviour, scientists are powerless. The flip side of this conundrum is that the power is in the hands of people. Individuals can convince governments and sway businesses to change. The question is, will they choose to do so if they do not believe in science?

I am sorry for the bigeye tuna, whose future is at risk because 500 delegates could not agree on a better way to manage the tuna fishery. But I am even more sorry that this pattern of ignoring the best that science has to offer will be repeated again in other scenarios.

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