Last month, I mentioned the scientific work that the East Yorkshire fishing industry does. Things are happening in our seas that we don’t fully understand, so we are trying to learn more about them. It sounds obvious enough, but the relationship between fishermen and science has traditionally been less straightforward.
Four years ago, the Daily Telegraph infamously declared that there were “Just 100 Cod Left in North Sea”.
The accompanying article claimed to report the findings of a scientific study which was predicting the imminent demise of one of the nation’s most iconic sea creatures.
Who was to blame for this dreadful state of affairs?
Fishermen, of course: driving a beloved national staple to the brink of extinction through thoughtless and greedy overfishing.
Unsurprisingly, fishermen disagreed. They knew very well what they saw in their nets every day. There couldn’t possibly be only 100 cod left while they were still being caught in large numbers. Whose fault was this blatant inaccuracy? Scientists, obviously: unable to see beyond their ivory towers; slandering hard-working fishermen with biased or incompetent research.
So far in this little drama, everyone is playing their expected parts. Here’s the thing with stereotypes, though: they are generally nonsense.
The real problem was with the article. Its author had fundamentally misunderstood a very unsensational research project. Scientists had actually said that there were around 100 cod in the North Sea that were more than 13 years old.
The average life span of a North Sea cod is 11 years, so it’s quite interesting to learn that some live significantly longer. But to conclude from this that cod are close to being wiped out is rather like saying that humans are nearly extinct because hardly anyone lives to be more than 100.
There are important lessons here, especially for those of us in an industry managed according to other people’s interpretations of scientists’ research. Don’t assume that something is true just because it is said with authority. Conversely, don’t assume that something is wrong just because you don’t like it. Always question assumptions, think critically and seek proof.
In other words, do some science of your own, which is precisely what we are doing.
As for those cod: how many are there really? According to the best available evidence, around 435 million and growing.
We probably don’t need to put away the mushy peas just yet.