The Numbers Guy: UCT Boffin DOUG BUTTERWORTH is Big in Japan

Emeritus Professor Doug Butterworth has been honoured by Japan for his role in managing their lucrative Southern Bluefin Tuna fishery.  He received the coveted Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Neck Ribbon


SABBEX: Did this come as a surprise? 

DOUG: Certainly – quite out of the blue. Actually the time of the announcement in Tokyo coincided with the latter stages of the IWC Scientific Committee meeting in Nairobi – my 39th successive of these annual meetings. The award was announced during a plenary session and I was given a standing ovation, followed by the suggestion that I should then cover the costs of champagne for all at the event’s concluding dinner!


SABBEX: Have you done a lot of work for the Japanese?  When did this first start and what has it all been about? 

DOUG: I’ve given them advice on many fisheries issues, and also whale assessments. But the award was particularly for Southern Bluefin Tuna work where I’ve served on the Japanese delegation to the CCSBT Scientific Committee since 2000 (or thereabouts), and often act as their primary spokesperson at those meetings because they are conducted in English, with which most Japanese struggle, so I also play a form of bridging role for them. I started with the CCSBT Scientific Committee in the mid-1990s (now being the oldest survivor!!), first as an independent adviser in a group sent to contribute by the joint industries of Japan, Australia and New Zealand. However, towards the end of the 1990s scientific tensions arose due to different interpretations about the state of the stock, and how best to resolve uncertainties, with Japan unilaterally deciding to take experimental catches to try to resolve these uncertainties. Australia reacted by litigating in ITLOS (the then new International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea – a form of marine International Court of Justice – in its first major case), and I submitted evidence supporting the Japanese position. From then on the Japanese included me in their scientific delegation each year. Scientifically, my main contribution was assisting in implementing the “management procedure” approach (which we had developed in the IWC and then implemented in South Africa) to set SBT catch limits. After the ITLOS hearings, an international scientific group was appointed by the Commission to try to promote some consensus amongst the warring factions on the scientific committee, and it was they who opted for this approach to try to solve these problems. The subsequent 20 years are a long story, but essentially we now have a resource (of high value – it’s Australia’s most valuable fishery) well on the road to recovery, with a highly co-operative scientific committee which operates in a very much changed manner compared to the war-zone of the late 1990s!

A fun story is that about 10 years ago, when SA was thinking about joining the CCSBT, they sent one of their Embassy staff in Tokyo to observe the SC meeting being held there that year. He found the main discourse taking place between me speaking for the Japanese, Marinelle Basson (a former student of mine who had emigrated from South Africa) as leader of the Australian delegation, and Andrew Penney (another former South African) who had been appointed as an independent (of the member countries) chair of the SC.


SABBEX: Presumably there is synergy between this work and your work here in SA?

DOUG: Very much so, especially in the “management procedure” context, being a different approach to recommending TACs that takes better account of scientific uncertainties. Essentially I (together with my then post-graduate student Andre Punt – Andre now heads the Fisheries Department at the University of Washington in Seattle, recognised as the leading such Department in the world) was part of the group that first developed this approach in the IWC Scientific Committee in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Andre and I then brought the basic concept back to SA to implement it for the major fisheries here (thus getting a head start on the rest of the world), and that then linked into the pursuit of such an approach for SBT, which commenced in the early 2000’s.


SABBEX: Stock assessments are crucially important. Why?

DOUG: Because “the answer is a number”. To manage a fishery sustainably, we need to know how much can be taken each year without reducing the abundance of the resource (so that we can repeat that process for all future years to come). Stock assessments are the mathematical/statistical processes that input data from the fishery and (sometimes) fishery independent surveys into calculations, which then output the value for a TAC (Total Allowable Catch) that will be sustainable.


SABBEX: Am I correct that one of the key strengths of your model is factoring in ‘knowledge’ of a particular fishery. Is that correct? Does your assessment model differ to others in use?

DOUG: Yes – though broadly speaking the stock assessment process is essentially the same for all resources, devil still remains in the details. One has to tailor those details to correspond to the particulars of the resource and fishery under consideration, and that requires local expertise.


SABBEX: Has working in SA helped you with your work, in the sense that we have a varied resource and dynamic ocean environment? 

DOUG: A major factor was that after the management procedure approach was developed in the IWC Scientific Committee in the late 80s/early 90s, it remained “theoretical” there as for others reasons the commercial whaling moratorium, which it was intended to supplant, was not lifted. (The main scientific reason used to justify the moratorium decision in 1982 was uncertainties in knowledge about whale abundance and productivity precluding the setting of “safe” catch limits – the management procedure approach was developed to deal with that problem.)  South Africa provided the opportunity to implement the approach in practice, and to gain experience with it, which is what enabled South Africa to become and be seen as the world leader in that regard.


SABBEX: Stock assessment has become political. Is this a problem?

DOUG: Yes and no. There’s much at stake financially for a fishing industry, and for NGOs needing to demonstrate to their funders that they are making an impact in “promoting conservation”. Both sides will make sure that they have some people participating in the scientific committees that discuss stock assessments and make scientific recommendations for TACs. At best such persons will ensure that aspects of the debate of importance to their “clients” are not overlooked; at worst, they will play an inappropriately strong advocacy role (with fisheries being an inexact science, the dividing line between objective advice and undue advocacy readily becomes blurred). Such advocacy is definitely a problem, and detracts from the confidence that is placed in the outcome from the scientific process. But the counter to that is that this situation arises particularly for controversial issues, and such controversy promotes a much more thorough and rigorous scientific process than might otherwise be the case.


SABBEX: Am I correct that your assessments by and large determine — or seek to determine — not only TAC but the amount of effort (number of boats) active in a sector?

DOUG: Yes, though generally only indirectly. In a few instances fisheries are managed by TAE (Total Allowable Effort), rather than TAC – eg. SA squid – but when the TAC is the management measure, effort becomes determined indirectly, as generally a company will tailor its number of vessels to fit with the catch quota it is receiving. This is because vessels are (in major industrial fisheries) expensive to build and expensive to run, so that for profitability a company must aim for maximum efficiency.


SABBEX: Do you come under pressure from industry sources when it comes to effort calculations and what this might mean for the local boat building sector? Or is this none of your concern? 

DOUG: Not really in South Africa, where fisheries are generally “mature” (i.e. little scope for expansion), so that boat building is generally needed only to replace vessels that have to be retired because of age. Probably within a decade or two that Antarctic krill fishery will become economically viable on a large scale, and that could allow for a South African industry expansion and with it a need for specialised vessels.

Such pressures do arise elsewhere though. One of the reasons that Spain did not cut back on its overexploitation of fish stocks in recent decades was that building fishing vessels was a major component of the economy in the Basque country, and the Spanish government was concerned that a reduction in orders would lead to unemployment problems, which would be exploited by the Basque Separatist movement for their advantage.


SABBEX: Recreational fishing is under pressure and many feel they are being ‘squeezed out’ — which has a negative impact on the boat building sector.  In your opinion are ‘recreationals’ being unfairly treated, or are all use groups similarly impacted by TAC/effort decisions?

DOUG: Recreationals have been proportionately reduced more than other groups in SA fisheries allocations, in part because of inadequate lobbying on their part. This contrasts strongly with places such as Florida, where recreationals are many, well-organised and politically influential, and can even push to “squeeze out “ the commercial industry. What is probably not fully appreciated is the large numbers of jobs that are created indirectly to support a  recreational fishery. What is generally missing in South Africa is independent economic studies that attempt objective comparisons of the net value (including jobs) for the country created by different types of fishing; these should provide the main (though not the only) basis for inter-sector allocation divisions.


SABBEX: There’s a lot of talk about MPAs. What is your view?  Will this assist conservation measures?

DOUG: Sometimes yes, but often no. MPA advocacy makes for an easy TV sound bite. It can certainly assist in the recovery of near-sessile species. But in most cases, MPAs are near useless to enhance conservation for wide ranging pelagic and demersal species, as what can no longer be caught inside such an area is readily replaced by catching that same amount just outside the area. Efficiency suffers, with an associated cost passed on to the consumer. MPAs must first and foremost have clearly articulated specific goals which have been pre-demonstrated to be likely to achievable. Their great danger is that they can suggest that “something is being done”, and thereby focus attention away from what really needs to be done, which is to ensure appropriate controls on catches (and/or effort).


SABBEX: Would be nice to be recognised by the SA government, not just the Japanese…?

DOUG: I already have such: in 2008 awarded the Order of Mapungubwe – Silver (the country’s highest award) by the South African President for my scientific contributions fisheries management in South Africa and internationally.

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