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Science before rhetoric

Wednesday 29 June 2016

Dr David Middleton, Chief Executive Trident Systems

I’m a fisheries scientist, not a politician. However, I find myself the latest plaything of the New Zealand political and media circus.

Just as Sunday morning was drawing to a close I was alerted to a Greenpeace press release. Russel Norman has decided to “reveal” to the world that the organisation I manage (Trident Systems) is owned by New Zealand seafood companies.

On looking at the press release I see that the “revelations” simply indicate that someone at Greenpeace has read what it says on our website and double checked this against the companies’ office records.

The fact that Trident Systems is a seafood industry research provider is hardly secret – it is proclaimed to anyone who visits our website. That we are contracted by the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) to provide video observation of the SNA 1 trawl fleet has been acknowledged in the media and elsewhere - including at a recent workshop which Greenpeace’s senior oceans campaigner, Karli Thomas, was involved in organising.

Yet shortly after, as I went to continue my Sunday activities, Greenpeace’s press release became the leading item on Radio New Zealand’s midday news.

The release had been embargoed till noon. I don’t know when the radio station got a copy, but they hadn’t found time to establish whether Greenpeace’s revelations actually constituted news (“information not previously known”), nor had they sought comment from Trident.

Instead, the basis of the story is simply that Russel Norman finds Trident’s ownership “troubling”.

Wouldn’t it be nice if someone had asked whether there was any merit to the story? Norman seems to be able to rely on the fact than NZ journalists no longer have time for any serious investigation and therefore find themselves complicit in the taking of a cheap shot. We expect this of politicians, but we should remind ourselves that Russel Norman is meant to be an EX-politician. Now he is part of an organisation whose core values include “Promoting Solutions: We [Greenpeace] seek solutions for, and promote open, informed debate about society’s environmental choices. … It’s not enough for us to point the finger; we develop, research and promote concrete steps towards a green and peaceful future for all of us.” It feels like finger pointing to me.

Checking our website hardly constitutes research. And what is the solution Greenpeace are promoting here?

Their press release contains plenty of aspersions, but not one constructive suggestion.

Norman is jumping on the bandwagon of negative publicity that has been aimed at New Zealand’s fisheries management regime over the last couple of weeks. It’s made the headlines but we’ve not seen the press pick up on some key issues.

For example, why has no-one in the mainstream media informed the public that erroneously overestimating catches from a fishery would be dangerous – the antithesis of the precautionary approach to fisheries management?

Overestimation of historic catches leads to an overestimation of fish stock productivity – and so risks catch limits being set too high. The problem was clearly noted by Prof Matt Dunn (writing for the Science Media Centre) at an early stage in the current debate, yet this key issue has been missed in the rush to apportion blame and score political points.

Like Russel Norman, I’m an immigrant to New Zealand. I moved because of New Zealand’s reputation for good fisheries management underpinned by good fisheries science.

The establishment of Trident Systems as a research services provider is entirely consistent with the incentives created under the Quota Management System for stakeholders to invest in efficient mechanisms to provide research services. Trident’s shareholders have invested in R&D of systems and processes to support effective and efficient management of New Zealand’s fisheries.

In developing video observation systems, Trident has partnered with innovative New Zealand technologists and we’ve finally reached the stage where our systems are considered as viable alternatives to human observers, welcomed by fishers and supporting compliance and transparency. We’re still at an early stage in developing the use of this technology in New Zealand fisheries management but have already received interest from overseas.

 For the record

The cameras on vessels are tamper resistant. Date, time and GPS position stamps on all footage ensure it can be fully audited. The footage is available to MPI in full.

Making decisions about regulatory compliance is the job of MPI. MPI makes those decisions based on monitoring data they receive.

Trident’s role is to foster collaboration and co-operation in research that ensures sustainability of fish stocks.

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