Setting record straight on scientific debate, Board of Fisheries meetings

Posted: Tuesday, January 20, 2004

I rarely respond to letters to the editor, but when I am personally attacked without justification, I feel compelled to respond. Ken Tarbox, former commercial fisheries employee and current consultant to commercial fisheries, stated that I "stifled scientific debate" at the February 2002 Board of Fisheries meeting.


I would be interested in hearing specifics from Mr. Tarbox as to how, as one of seven board members, I "stifled scientific debate" given all of our public discussions on his and other people's reports.

The truth is that Mr. Tarbox presented a lengthy "scientific" report to the board advocating significant changes in the fisheries very shortly before the board meeting in February 2002. Usually staff reports are available well in advance of the board meeting to allow both the board and the public to review the report. Usually, reports such as this are subject to some level of peer review to determine the validity of the scientific conclusions reached in the report. That did not happen, and Mr. Tarbox was reprimanded by the commissioner's office for the lateness of his report.

Despite the tardiness of Mr. Tarbox's report, the board spent hours in public review and discussion of the report and various other reports and written comments. In fact, this report became the centerpiece of the board's discussion and resulted in the adoption of various regulatory changes which Mr. Tarbox supported both in committee and in public comment to the board.

In addition to the numerous public meetings, as a sub-committee chairman, I spent hours meeting with Mr. Tarbox and other Alaska Department of Fish and Game staff members working on the various proposals. Some of these meetings went long into the night, as I am sure Mr. Tarbox will remember. As part of those discussions we used Mr. Tarbox's report, as well as other reports and written comments from various stakeholder groups. Our review included the Kenai River Sportfishing Association expert's report.

It is important to remember that the commercial-sport fisheries allocation fights are very acrimonious. Both sides present "scientific" studies to bolster their positions. Sometimes the information is helpful, sometimes not. Sometimes the reports are sound science, sometimes not.

To categorically state that one scientific report from one biologist is "wrong" and another is "right" is simply not possible. In all cases, there is a high degree of uncertainty surrounding even the best science.

The debate around maximum sustained yield, single species management, overescapement, biological and genetic diversity, density dependency, regime shift, ocean survival and other similar topics has demonstrated this lack of certainty. However, never in my six and one-half years on the board did I or any other member "stifle" any "scientific" or other debate.

For Mr. Tarbox to say so is simply not true.

In conclusion, let me add that during my term on the board, I never encountered a department employee so committed to the position of one stakeholder group in opposition to another stakeholder group. Mr. Tarbox was not an independent and unbiased voice of science, advising the board as to the "best science" which was his job. He was and continues to be an advocate for one group of stakeholders. This is fine now that he is retired from the department, but it made working with him difficult because he was an advocate, not a neutral adviser.

And that's the truth.

Thank you for the opportunity to set the record straight.

Dan K. Coffey

Former Board of Fisheries member


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