Science or Opinion…Which Should We Trust?

Fisheries management is a complicated science. What makes it even more complicated is attempting to practice it under a microscope. Not the lab instrument, what I’m referring to is the microscope of public scrutiny.

The job gets even tougher when bloviating jurists serving in the court of public opinion have never studied marine science, yet they are all bona fide experts. Just ask them. Just don’t ask to see their credentials.

The opinion I am about to express here may not play well with all who read it, but it is my carefully considered opinion and I’m about to let it fly.

The management of Texas’ marine fisheries is entrusted to the Coastal Fisheries Division of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. The division staff includes a considerable number of PhDs, many more with master’s degrees, and perhaps hundreds of undergraduates in the field of marine science and resource management. Below these are the dedicated technicians without degrees but years and years of practical hands-on experience in the field. Many times I’ve heard Coastal Fisheries Ecosystem Leaders remark how skilled and knowledgeable some of the long-tenured technicians have become during their careers. This is the TPWD brain trust. The rest of us are fishermen – by education and by trade. Some have many years of fishing experience, some only a few. In the final analysis, though, we are fishermen, not scientists.

We have no science-based data, perhaps a few notes of fishing success scribbled somewhere, much of what becomes accepted as fact is handed down from other fishermen whose opinions should perhaps be questioned more than trusted. You might already be aware, the best way for a story to become factual is to repeat it often and loudly to willing listeners.

What I’m leading up to is the current dilemma of southern flounder management facing Coastal Fisheries staff and the commissioners to whom they report. Whether the court of public opinion is willing to accept TPWD’s data regarding the decline of southern flounder in Texas waters, it is documented very plainly in population sampling data going back more than forty years. For Joe Fisherman to believe his own anecdotal observations are more valid would be about as ridiculous as stalking a grizzly bear with a BB gun.

What fishermen have the greatest difficulty accepting is that population sampling via rod & reel, and flounder gig, is highly anecdotal and always selective. Fishermen are equipped to judge a fishery solely through fishing success. Nothing else. Yes, we are currently seeing what might appear to be a somewhat recovered flounder fishery, but only in terms of adult specimens in our creels.

So, I ask you, have any of the so-called expert fishermen blasting proposed regulatory changes conducted sampling of the fry and fingerling flounder populations that will become next year’s spawning adults? Coastal Fisheries have, and the recruitment gap being revealed is cause for great alarm. We should be smart enough to realize that we must conserve spawning adults today if we are to enjoy a viable fishery in the future.