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August 24, 2017
Contact: Heather Soulen

The Importance of Being Heard

Lessons in Communication from a Stakeholder Driven MSE for Atlantic Herring

Scientists from the Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC) and others helped organize and facilitate a 2017 American Fisheries Society (AFS) symposium on stakeholder involvement in the management strategy evaluation process. Jon Deroba, fisheries scientist at NEFSC, presented his collaborative work on communicating with stakeholders during stakeholder driven MSE workshops at the symposium. This feature story is an extension of his presentation for AFS participants and those involved in fisheries science and natural resource management.

Highlights
  • Communicating and designing research with broad stakeholder involvement can improve relationships and public buy-in to the process
  • Words and phrases mean different things to different people
  • Graphical representation of scientific output can be challenging, but using multiple formats tailored to purpose is helpful
  • Repeated interactions with stakeholders helps stakeholders understand data, research, and decision making

Stakeholder driven management strategy evaluation (MSE) is a collaborative decision-making process involving stakeholder input and technical analysis to help determine how a range of harvest control rules could affect fishery management objectives. In 2016, the New England Fisheries Management Council (NEFMC) approved the development of two MSE workshops to give Atlantic herring stakeholders the opportunity to provide input about their concerns regarding fishery objectives and control rule tradeoffs. One of the primary goals for this kind of inclusive MSE process is to foster open dialogue between resource users, scientists, managers, and other interested members of the public in a constructive and supportive environment. In May and December of 2016 scientists from the Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC) and others facilitated two sets of stakeholder driven workshops -- first ever for the region, and quite possibly the country.

Breaking new ground

The team’s workshops attracted several interest groups within the stakeholder community. “Herring are a broad interest. Tuna congregate around schools of herring. Groundfish eat herring. Herring is used for lobster bait so it has a direct connection to a very large multimillion dollar fishery. They’re also a major forage fish in the region,” says Jon Deroba, NEFSC fishery scientist. At one point the number of participants grew to about 90 -- far exceeding normal stakeholder participation during council meetings. While a lot of the council processes are completely open, participants only have three minutes to say whatever they want to say. “We tried to keep the council members on the side - this was for the folks who aren’t content with their three minutes at a council meeting,” adding that, “Stakeholders don’t have another venue that allows them the center stage to express their concerns - their uncertainties - their objectives for a fishery.”

The importance of being heard

The team was most interested in learning about stakeholder questions and concerns surrounding Atlantic herring and its management. Sarah Gaichas, a fisheries scientist at NEFSC recalls, “It was interesting to get in there and say ‘What do you want to see out of this?’ That’s the part that’s super important, and difficult.” It’s difficult because there were some questions and concerns that the team simply couldn’t address during the MSE technical analysis. For example, some stakeholders were interested in spatial dynamics, like the overlap between predators and herring. To to do this the team requires data at a couple different spatial scales related to herring predators. “We don’t have a lot of informative data as you start to shrink the spatial scale. You also need movement rates. If predators come in and come out, then their overlap with herring isn’t that great.” said Deroba. “Duly noted -- spatial concerns and overlap are of interest, but we can’t provide this in six months.” The stakeholder’s concerns about spatial scaling and predator won’t end there. If the team can’t address these concerns in this round of technical analyses, they’d note them because the team this style of MSE evolving over time.

Click image to enlarge
Jon Deroba speaking to crowd In 2016, the New England Fisheries Management Council (NEFMC) approved the development of two MSE workshops to give Atlantic herring stakeholders the opportunity to provide input about their concerns regarding fishery objectives and control rule tradeoffs. Photo credit: NEFMC

Lessons learned

People use life experience to help define words and phrases

The team had a few crucial takeaways from this stakeholder driven MSE experience. First, words and phrases mean different things to different people with different life experiences. Intuitively they knew this. However, they discovered that being very clear and specific in their word and phrase choices is key in being sure everyone is understanding each other. “We were saying something that we think is clear. They were hearing something they think is clear. And it was totally not the same thing,” said Gaichas. For example, when the team explained different types of control rules that could be implemented, Deroba mentioned fishery closure, saying, “If herring biomass drops too low, some of the control rules will say, ‘You’re not allowed to go catch any herring this year -- for the whole year.” And when Deroba mentioned a control rule that will close fishery 20% of the time, fishermen heard, ‘in-season closure,’ because that was the only relatable closure they’ve ever experienced. “In their mind when I said ‘probability of a fishery closure,’ they thought ‘well, I could go fish for a little while, but then due to something, the fishery would close, but I’ve already caught enough herring to make my annual living.’” However, what Deroba and the team meant was that the fishery would completely close, something that has never happened before. Seeing first hand how life experiences shape how the team’s words and phrases are received highlighted the need for clear and concise communication for successful fisheries management. After continued discussion, stakeholders were then able to make informed decisions and answer questions about how often they’d like the fishery to close. And when the team heard stakeholders say they don’t ever want the fishery to close, scientists and managers can make that a priority during the technical analysis portion of the MSE.

Abundance versus growth

Another tricky word was abundance. “We thought abundance would be very clear, but it wasn’t,”  said Deroba. The team discussed a graph illustrating tuna condition (i.e., how fat tuna are) and herring abundance, pointing out that tuna condition was not responsive to herring abundance. “We found out that when herring are growing really well, tuna get to eat a bunch of cheeseburgers. They only need a couple cheeseburgers so you can drive herring abundance really really low and tuna will still be fat. But, if herring growth is really really low, the tuna will not be fat and happy, and it doesn’t matter how many herring are out there -- tuna can’t eat enough celery to get fat.” After hearing some of the questions and conversations about their graphs Deroba realized that the word ‘abundance’ means something very different to commercial fishers. “He heard herring don’t matter to tuna. He didn’t hear me say that tuna condition is largely unresponsive to herring abundance,” Deroba said.

Click image to enlarge
lobster fishing boat Atlantic herring is used for lobster bait and has a direct connection to a very large multimillion dollar fishery. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries

Natural diet and bait aren’t always the same

One question that really stumped the team was, “Why don’t your models have lobsters in there as predators of herring?” Knowing that lobsters are omnivores and scavengers, the team initiated discussion and after a little back and forth the team were able to connect the dots between lobsters and herring. It came down to bait. About 95% of the herring catch in the US is used as lobster bait. They learned that commercial lobstermen want a steady supply of 90,000-100,000 tons of herring each year. With this knowledge Deroba was able show a herring graphic illustrating harvest control rules and how stable these are year to year, addressing stakeholders concerns about herring harvest and long-term stability. “There just was no flashing light to say, ‘Lobstermen - look at this graph,’” said Deroba. “If you get lost in the modeling -- the technical aspects -- and you glaze over a bit, it would be very easy to miss their interpretation.”

Tradeoffs, repetition, and engagement

Besides careful word choices and clearly defining terms and phrases, having stakeholders conceptualize and consider tradeoffs is key for sustainable fisheries. The team found xy scatter plots helpful to demonstrate tradeoffs, but warns that the two dimensional nature of these plots (e.g., yield versus biomass) doesn’t get at the complexity of that tradeoff. While spider plots can better illustrate tradeoff complexity, Deroba warns, “If they’re not hanging with you, then the process will break down pretty quickly because they can’t convey their preferences and that’s ultimately what you want.”

The team also found repetition is key. “Repeated opportunities to see the material, see the data behind the models, present the graphics in different ways, present the methods in different ways -- don’t always put the same slide up there the same way both in formal and informal opportunities,” is crucial Deroba said. He and the rest of the team are onto something here. Different people have different learning styles that should be considered when engaging with stakeholders.

Lastly, Deroba recommends including your contact information, especially when there’s broad interest fishery. “People can call me now. I’m much more comfortable talking to them and they understand me a bit better too. I just had a meeting last Friday with a few environmental groups still talking about the MSE and what we can do to make these [workshops] better -- it was really positive feedback.” He also suggest that to get the full benefit of this process you need to stay engaged -- even with email. “Just hit reply -- take one minute to clarify a question -- it pays in dividends.”

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The Northeast Fisheries Science Center conducts ecosystem-based science supporting stewardship of living marine resources under changing climatic conditions. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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(File Modified Aug. 24 2017)