My turn: Committee needs a seat representing science

Posted: Thursday, December 18, 2008

As a member of the general public, I recently attended a meeting of the Juneau Douglas Fish and Game Advisory Committee. There I learned that this committee of advisors is comprised of 15 members, all with seats designated for particular user groups. There are, for example, seats designated for commercial fishers, sport fishers, trappers, hunters, wildlife watchers, and so on. This array of users, I'm told, represents a recent reorganization of the committee.

I noticed immediately that, despite the diversity, all 15 seats on the committee are for human users, and that 13 of the seats are for consumptive users that exploit animal populations as a resource. There is no seat designated for science that deals with the effects of exploitation on those populations.

This committee is advisory to state Board of Game. It should be in a position to base their advice on good science. It is not sufficient to rely on biologists of the agency to whom the advice may ultimately be passed - that creates a condition of circularity that is not productive. Agency biologists are sometimes subject to outdated policies, political pressures and gag rules that prevent them from making best use of their biological background.

In recent years there perhaps has been some increased interest among consumptive users in the issue of sustainable exploitation. And some committee members may have a background in biology. A generalized interest in sustainability or biology is, however, not an adequate substitute for a seat designated for science relevant to exploited animal populations. There needs to be a committee member who has expertise in the effects of exploitation on the populations of the exploited.

Exploitation clearly has consequences for the ecology and the evolution of the exploited populations. Simply reducing densities can affect animal behavior in many ways, some of which may, in turn, affect future exploitation. For instance, competition among males for mates is one factor that can lead to the evolution of larger body size; reduction of density reduces that pressure and may result in smaller average size of the animals in question. Selective killing of larger animals is known to have an evolutionary effect on populations of fish and mammals, leading to animals of smaller sizes. Selective taking of one sex affects the mating systems and sex ratios of future populations. Evolutionary changes can be rapid, in the course of very few generations.

The ecology of animal populations is complex. Many factors can contribute to controlling population size and growth rates, including habitat quality and food supply, weather, disease, predators (including humans), breeding or nesting sites, and competing species. Factors may interact with each other or have differing effects under differing conditions.

Recognition of this complexity and the need for research to understand it are fundamental to the making of rational and successful regulations for exploiting animal populations.

Science - informed science, as good as we can make it - is fundamental to the creation of sustainable exploitation. Science is not perfect in its ability to understand or predict the consequences of exploitation, in part because the necessary research is not always available. However, the absence of a designated science seat on this committee leaves the committee comprised entirely of interests that are, in a sense, competing for the same resources. It is unlikely that a set of competing interests would have the ability or the will to fully consider the inevitable consequences of human use of animal populations for populations in question and the entire ecosystem.

When this committee was re-constituted, it was obviously deemed important for a diversity of users to be represented explicitly with seats designated for their particular interests. It is most unfortunate that there is no equivalent concern for the used, exploited populations.

I urge this committee to create a designated seat for science, in the interests of sustainable use of animal populations. (And I state also that I, personally, do not wish to occupy such a seat.)

• Mary F. Willson is a retired professor of ecology.

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