BAY DELTA SCIENCE CONFERENCE: Lessons from the ocean for integrating science in policy decisions

At the Bay-Delta Science Conference held in November of 2016, theme of the conference was “Science for Solutions: Linking Data and Decisions”, a theme reinforced in this presentation from Dr. Steve Gaines highlighting how he has used science to work towards solutions in the complex environment of the ocean and fisheries management.

Dr. Steve Gaines is Dean of the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at UC Santa Barbara; he also currently serves as principle investigator for the sustainable fisheries group, which seeks scalable solutions for the world’s fisheries through partnerships among UCSB researchers, industry leaders, NGOs, and governments.

Dr. Steve Gaines began by noting that he’s been involved in several kinds of ocean issues where the conference theme of ‘science to solutions’ has been particularly relevant.  About 25 years ago, he began to become engaged in a variety of public policy processes.  “For at least the first decade, I was incredibly frustrated at how little science played a role in most of these processes, so I was on this quest for seeing how we could actually enhance the role that science can play in informing decision making and making public policy processes potentially less of a conflict process and more of a process that’s being driven to drive effective solutions.”

He acknowledged he doesn’t know that much about the Delta, but it does share some similarities with the ocean issues he’s worked on:  “You have a lot of problems that are interacting with each other, lots of stakeholder groups, conflicts between conservation and economics, and a variety of different complex problems that need creative solutions,” he said.  “The same is true in the open ocean and along coastal ocean where I’ve been involved in a lot of different processes.  So I think there’s a lot of potential ways we can be thinking about how we can have science playing a more effective role.”

Although one way that scientists can play a more effective role is to be better communicators, he noted there are plenty of resources available for doing that, so he won’t be addressing that in his talk today.  “What I want to focus on are three things from being engaged in a number of processes that I found were incredibly important,” he said.  “First is to be thinking about solutions as much as we think about problems.  The second is that we need to build new kinds of teams, and I’m talking about teams of different kinds of scientists to be able to effectively think about how we take science from describing problems to driving solutions.  The third is that we need to be thinking about the fact that stakeholders have different values and how we actually have science play a role in addressing that question in a very big way.”


Natural scientists are incredibly good at identifying environmental challenges, and identifying and documenting problems with excruciating detail, and same is true with oceans; there have been several relatively big studies in the last 15-20 years about major challenges that are happening in the ocean in terms of declines in fisheries, climate change issues, and other problems, Dr. Gaines said.

We’re not very good at actually identifying solutions,” he said.

Dr. Gaines presented a slide from a study conducted by Boris Worm et al about 10 years ago that highlighted major declines in global fisheries.  “It received a lot of publicity because it forecasted the demise of the world’s fisheries by 2048, so it documented the declines and caused a lot of attention that way,” he said.  “But what it didn’t do was really think about the solution side of things.  I think that there are a whole variety of ways that we as scientists can provide a much more effective role in identifying solutions.”

One way is to look for situations where there are exceptions.  “There are experiments going on around the world where people are trying different things, and some of them are successful and other ones are failures, so by really diving into and looking for exceptions to the general rule, it can help identify successes in places that might have broader applicability in other locations,” he said.  “The demonstration of success in another place can also help motivate change in a place where something might be viewed as a challenging thing to change.”

A couple of years after the paper by Worm et al came out, they looked at a variety of different management actions, there were certain types of management of fisheries where the pattern was going in exactly the opposite direction, he said.  He presented a slide showing one class of fisheries management approach called catch shares or right space management, noting that while the average fishery status was declining, these stocks were going in the opposite direction.

One way we can play an important role in identifying solutions is to tap into the variety of different ways that we can identify where successes have already occurred and use that as a way to actually drive change in other places,” he said.

It’s also an advantage to have the right timing.  “When this paper came out in 2008, it was just a few months before my thesis advisor was appointed as head of NOAA, which is a nice thing to try to time your publications to be able to have them effectively put into public policy,” he said.  “So there was a lot of activity identifying the successes that people had seen with catch shares as an influence on US policy in fisheries in a very big way.”


Dr. Gaines said another important thing he has learned from his experiences is the power of integrating natural sciences with the social scientists.  “Looking at these kinds of problems, there’s a lot to be gained from a deeper and richer integration of the way we think about the natural world and the way that social scientists actually think about human interactions and human behavior and motivation of actions, and by connecting these things together, I think we can come up with much more interesting and effective solutions than what’s going to happen if we continue to work apart.

A catch share is a simple example of how this integration between social sciences and natural sciences can play an important role, he said.  The motivation for the catch share approach to management of fisheries came from Garrett Hardin, who came up with the idea of the tragedy of the commons.  He gave an analogy of the concept using his two daughters and a smoothie.  If you take a cold smoothie, put it between them and give them each a straw, they are going to suck like crazy because neither one of them trusts the other one to only consume half, so the result is a brain freeze.  This is analogous to why some fisheries were collapsing where there were no ownership rights on the part of the fishermen, he said.

So one potential way to solve this they came up with was to actually give rights,” he said.  “If you take the smoothie, cut it in half into two cups, my daughters drink it in a totally different way.  They steward their smoothie, everybody is happy, and everybody wins.  So this was in fact the basis of the argument for catch share fisheries.”

The argument for catch share fisheries came out in the late 1960s, the initial catch share fisheries started being implemented in the 1970s, and the use of them has grown worldwide, he said.  “They have a very different pattern of success and dynamics, relative to other kinds of changes, and a big part of this is because of the combination of linking the biology with the human side of these equations and really thinking about how we can align economic and environmental incentives.  There’s another benefit on the team side that comes from this, is that we also get the interest of a broader array of policy makers.”

He presented a graph from a recent paper that was published earlier this year that looked at the status of several thousand fisheries around the world; this graph is looking at the fraction of those fisheries that are at a stock level where they are still producing a good harvest.  He noted that it is trending downward; it’s about 50% at the current point in time.

So one of the things we can also do is use science for thinking about solutions and explore a variety of different kinds of policy options, and forecast on the basis of our best available science what we expect would happen,” Dr. Gaines said.  “So we did this with a whole variety of different kinds of options.  It doesn’t matter really what the different policy options are to make my point, but what it allows us to do is start looking at forecasting what the consequences are for the ecosystem and for the people involved, of a variety of different kinds of effects.”

What they produced out of the study was an estimate for the globe of what would happen if they could actually fix the world’s fisheries.  “What you end up seeing is you get 23% more food, 300% more profit, and over a doubling of the population size of fish in the ocean,” Dr. Gaines said.  “One of the benefits of linking these together is that this kind of result attracts very different audiences on these different lines.”

If you are thinking about this purely as a conservation problem, you really like that last line, that it basically more than doubles the fish in the ocean, if we were to fix the world’s fisheries,” he continued.  “But in a lot of other cases, the impact of this paper has actually had a bigger participation by foreign governments in particular because it attracted the attention of the ministry of finance, rather than the ministry of the environment or the ministry of fisheries.  That is because of the fact that there’s such a large, potential, untapped loss of profits that are associated with the fact that we are mismanaging these fisheries, and at the same time, creating a big environmental challenge.

So the ability to actually link in both the economic and social benefits that come out of this, both the food security as well as economics, with the conservation benefit, broadens the array the of key decision makers who are interested in the results, and enhances the chance that we’re actually going to see these kinds of policies being implemented to drive change.”


There are a lot of different stakeholder groups in these processes that have different values, in terms of what is most meaningful to them and what’s most valuable to them about these systems and the way we interact with natural systems,” Dr. Gaines said. “And there’s of course this assumption that there are really strong tradeoffs between people achieving what they value out of a system relative to what others want, and as a consequence, the presumption of tradeoffs between obtaining different kinds of values from natural systems and the way we interact with them leads to conflict and battles in terms of dealing with a whole variety of different environmental problems.”

This diverse array of stakeholders is as true in the ocean as it is in the Bay Delta.  “There are an enormous number of different kinds of ways that people use the ocean and value it; and that number is growing with emerging uses in terms of energy production, off-shore aquaculture, and expansion of aquaculture in a lot of different habitats around the world, so there’s a real diverse array of uses,” he said.  “The perception on the part of different people that value these different components of the way the ocean interacts with people and the presumption is that there’s a lot of conflict with likely tradeoffs between these kinds of uses.”

An approach he has used successfully is to embrace the issue from the beginning and to recognize that there are a lot of different things people value, and then asking the question, how do different policy options affect this distribution of values across people, and are there ways that we can actually identify solutions that are win-wins.  “This is based upon an approach that steals from the economics that is used in business and what’s called production possibilities analysis, and it’s very simple,” he said.  “Imagine that there are only two things that people value: profit from fisheries, and some aspect of conservation, so there is some policy option that gets put in place, and you let it go through time, and you get some combination of fisheries profits and conservation that come out of this.”

Now imagine another policy, this one has better conservation value and lower fisheries profit,” he continued.  “With these two examples, if this is the entire world, they could be viewed as a trade-off to get more conservation that comes at the expense of fisheries values.  But there’s really nothing that tells us that this is a real trade-off because we haven’t explored all the possibilities.  But suppose there’s another policy that has better conservation value and fisheries value than either one of the other two.  Now, those previous two policy options are not an example of a tradeoff, they are just both bad choices.  They are bad choices because no matter which of these two options you value, the option that’s to the upper right is a better choice.”

Imagine that we could explore all the possibilities that are out there, and put them onto this plot, and suppose that for any one of these, we have to use a lot of science to be able to generate what the anticipated outcome is going to be from a particular policy option.”

But what this allows us to do is for all the imaginable policy options, we can identify what we call the efficiency frontier, which identifies the range of all the optimal solutions,” he said.  “Solutions that are not on the efficiency frontier are never optimal; there’s always a better solution that is better in at least one of the axes if not both, then any other possibilities that are not on the frontier.  So this provides us a conceptual way to be thinking about how do we seek options which are maximizing the combination of values, and then it allows us to also say, where are the tradeoffs that we really need to be focusing on, which are the trade-offs along the efficiency frontier.”

Dr. Gaines then gave an example from the Marine Life Protection Act, which was a decade-long contentious process to put in marine protected areas along the California coast.  There were multiple stakeholders and multiple issues involved in the process.  “The public policy process that was put in play for the Marine Life Protection Act used this analytical tool that I’m talking to you about to evaluate proposals that stakeholder groups put on the table,” he said.  “However, the process stated that scientists on the evaluation panel were not allowed to put proposals on the table.  The proposals could only come from stakeholder groups that were involved in the public policy process; the whole idea of that, I guess, was to keep scientists from somehow dominating the discussion.”

He then displayed a graph with a cluster of points showing the distributions of the proposals that the stakeholders put on the table during the public policy process.  “You can see there is somewhat of a trade-off kind of shape associated with this,” he said.

If we viewed this as exploring the entire space of options, this would be our efficiency frontier, and in fact, the one that was chosen is the one that’s furthest up and to the right on the efficiency frontier,” he continued.  “So all is well and good in the sense that this really did inform a lot of the discussion, and people actually did get behind the proposal that was the best combination for these two different kinds of metrics.”

The problem is that this is a teeny number of possible options for MPAs,” he said.  As soon as the process was over, they of course ran every imaginable MPA network for the coast; he presented the graph of all the possible options.

So that supposed efficiency frontier from the process is not anywhere near where the true efficiency frontier was, and our estimates on the basis of scientific forecasts for both fisheries consequences as well as conservation consequences suggested that the choice that was made was 20% lower in potential fisheries profit from ones that are out on the frontier, or 30% lower in conservation from proposals that potentially could have been discussed, if they would have been put on the table from the beginning.”

So why wouldn’t we want to put every possible proposal on the table?,” said Dr. Gaines.  “That way the discussion on the part of all stakeholders can evaluate on the best available scientific information about what the potential options are, and then think about if you want to go to an interior choice, at least it needs to be motivated by something other than the projection in terms of best interests of people that are valuing the conservation or fisheries side of this question.  That didn’t happen in this case, but the fact that we actually were able to show after the fact what would be possible has made a really big impact on other public policy processes.”

Dr. Gaines said there are at least four other big spatial planning efforts he’s been involved with.  One was an analysis for the Galapagos Marine Park that just led to a 35% closure of the marine park in Galapagos into a no-take reserve; they did a large analysis for aquaculture expansion in Southern California, and for wind farms in Bermuda.  “Every one of these processes up front asked for the scientific projections on the basis of what our best available science is,” he said.  “They’ve had a really big role in terms of people actually thinking about where are the options for win-wins, where do we have to focus on tradeoffs, and let’s avoid false tradeoffs that are only there because we’re choosing alternatives that are not anywhere close to what the best possible options might be.”

Dr. Gaines then gave his conclusions.  “I think the lessons that I have learned in the ocean is one that scientists can have a much bigger impact in public policy processes if we obsess as much thinking about solutions to the problems we identify as we do about defining the problems; I think that’s an incredibly important aspect,” he said.  “The second is, natural scientists need to embrace social scientists and the combination of the two working in teams can look at and identify solutions that neither group is going to come up with on their own.  And third, if it’s possible, find a way to let everybody win.  Now in some cases, it won’t be possible, but in other cases, at least we can reduce the level of conflict between different policy options, and science can play an incredibly important role in trying to help us forecast where these win-win possibilities might be.”

Thank you very much.”

For more from the Bay Delta Science Conference …

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