The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) is taking steps to ensure greater transparency in its scientific committee meetings after industry consultants tried to dominate a subcommittee hearing in May in North Carolina.
That meeting, which was reported by the Public Trust Project, included government scientists from state agencies as well as federal researchers who discussed the 2012 stock assessment process for Atlantic menhaden, a small, critically important forage fish that has suffered massive declines in recent years. The official 2012 stock assessment will help fishery managers determine how many menhaden are left in the water and the volume of fish that should be placed off-limits to the commercial harvesters.
But industry consultants funded by Omega Protein – the largest industrial harvester of menhaden — cast a long shadow at the meeting, interrupting the proceedings, advising government researchers and making recommendations about changes to the stock assessment model.
After the meeting, government scientists on the stock assessment subcommittee offered their perspectives in interviews with the Public Trust Project. And several shared their concerns that overt industry participation might have violated protocol.
Richen Brame of the Coastal Conservation Association blogged that in his thirteen years of attending ASMFC technical meetings, he had never witnessed such “egregious” participation by the industry in the scientific process.
“The two scientists hired by Omega are some of the best-known stock assessment experts in the world, and their opinions should be available to the stock assessment subcommittee and technical committee, but in a controlled fashion that is fair to all,” he wrote.
To the ASMFC’s credit, at a subsequent stock assessment subcommittee webinar, industry consultants were allowed to provide input only at the end of the session, during an established public comment period.
Mike Waine, fishery management plan coordinator at the ASMFC, began the webinar by saying, “We’ll be hearing from just stock assessment committee members first. After we’ve gone over the materials, we’ll allow comment from non-committee members.”
Conservation-oriented groups in attendance noted that this put the industry on equal footing with other interest groups, including recreational anglers and environmentalists, who previously had participated in the scientific process only during official public comment sessions.
The ASMFC is also at work on updating its guidelines for public participation in technical matters, a process that began earlier this year. These new measures should be approved in November at the ASMFC’s annual meeting, according to Bob Beale, Interstate Fishery Management Plan Coordinator for the ASMFC.
Beale noted that much has changed since the guidelines were written a decade ago, and that members of the public are a lot more involved and interested in the science behind the ASMFC’s regulatory decisions.
“The guidance on public participation is now left up to the chairs of the technical committees or the stock assessment subcommittees. It puts those chairs in a difficult spot at times. They’re scientists. They’re not always in a position to facilitate the crowd. It appears they need some more direction or guidance to fall back on,” Beale told the Public Trust Project in an interview.
The new guidelines come out in November, but until then there will be more technical meetings on the menhaden, including a webinar on June 7. How the committee chairs will balance input from industry representatives and other interest groups remains to be seen.
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