Thursday, October 07, 2010

Half empty

When environmental policy-makers are faced with scientific uncertainties and knowledge gaps, they've got to decide whether they see a glass that is half full or half empty. If it looks half empty it's easier to take precautionary action; if it's said to be half full that can lead to a cover up of too permissive policies.

I am locked this week in a conference room that looks like a cave, in a Madrid hotel where I am attending the meeting of the Standing Committee on Research and Statistics of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT), where government scientists are trying to respond to the request of the 48 member States to carry out a reliable assessment of the state of the population of Atlantic bluefin tuna, a species which is thought to be near collapse and which has become, as a result, an icon of shrinking marine populations in the Mediterranean Sea. Decades of overfishing, scattered and unreliable monitoring and reporting, and disregard for science have led to an estimated decline of up to 85 percent since 1970. ICCAT will hold its annual meeting in Paris in the second half of November, and there it must decide whether to suspend the bluefin tuna commercial fisheries or to risk irreversible damage to the bluefin tuna resource.

ICCAT scientists may be doing their best to respond, but there's only so much they can do in a context where the vast majority of member States fails to report their catches in an accurate and timely manner. So, inevitably this means the glass is half empty, and scientists have a hard time recommending solid, credible and safe 2011 catch limits for the species.

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