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Cormorants: The Difference Between Science and Management

Published 01/25/11
By Barry Kent MacKay, Senior Program Associate

Double-breasted cormorants
(Painting by Barry Kent MacKay)

Such terms as “science” and “scientist” are often broadly used to include practices that are not science and individuals who may or may not be scientists and may or may not practice science. For the purposes of better understanding cormorants or any other wildlife species it is important to distinguish between “science” and “management.”

Science is a process designed to determine what is factual, and it requires impartial objectivity. Science inevitably is a process of discovery, and those discoveries can be used by scientists and non-scientists alike to obtain certain objectives that may serve any of a variety of needs, but the original fact is simply that: knowledge. How it is used is a different matter and usually is determined by any of a variety of sociological factors or the needs of various interest groups.

Management is based on need or on a specific interest or politically driven motives. It may avail itself of science, may utilize scientific processes, certainly uses scientific jargon and methods of discovery, but its purpose is to serve a social or political or economic need.

There is no hard, fast separation between science and management any more than there is between, for example, science and medicine, science and economic theory, science and agriculture, science and engineering and so on, and it is often seen to be the benefit of certain organizations, governments, agencies and other interest groups to further blur what distinction does exist. This is profusely true of the distinction between the life sciences, such as zoology and ecology, and wildlife management.

The confusion between the life sciences and wildlife management is exacerbated by the simple fact that many would-be scientists who want to objectively study the natural world are most likely to find the jobs and/or funding to do so in the service of wildlife management.

Often “pure” science, also known by such expressions as “science for science’s sake,” is seen by many as a not necessarily affordable luxury if it leads to discoveries that convey no “practical” value that serves a specific human interest.

What also should be of particular concern to those trying to understand the natural world is that the information uncovered by “pure” science may be denied, ignored, ridiculed or distorted by those whose purpose is to serve political or economic or ideological ends.

There are “scientific” studies that purport to show that there are “too many” cormorants, always understanding that how many there are depends upon the conditions that exist, both at the time the determination is made and during the time leading up to it. There cannot be “too many” cormorants or anything else unless there is a number beyond which something undesirable happens.

To illustrate that last point, consider that there are far more grains of sand than cormorants on Earth, but no one says there are “too many” grains of sand without there being something that the number causes that is undesirable. There may be “too many” grains of sand inside a beach house that should be kept clean, and certainly “too many” grains of sand if one is fighting a sandstorm. But on a beach or in a desert, where sand can exist on a calm day without causing any difficulty, the concept of “too many” grains of sand becomes absurd. There may become “too many” grains of sand in one’s shoes, but not too many once those grains are returned to the beach.

The point is what constitutes “too many” is not a “scientific” determination, and will vary from one circumstance to another. Scientific procedures may be used to explain why there are as many sand grains as there are in any given circumstance, but what constitutes “too many” such grains is a value judgement made in response to varying interests.

Most of the “studies,” whether using scientific procedures or not, cited to rationalize the culling of cormorants are written by wildlife managers, although many are trained as fish or plant biologists who will selectively employ both scientific procedure and scientific jargon in their findings. There are always exceptions, of course, but too often the goal they seek to reach is to provide a rationale for reducing cormorants in response to public demand.

We will look at the causes of the demands in more detail elsewhere, but put simply, the concern is, as stated above, that cormorants eat “too many” fish of direct or indirect value to commercial and sport anglers. Currently this argument is more frequently used in the United States than in Canada where, presumably, a concerted effort by Cormorant Defenders International (CDI3) has revealed the various degrees of invalidity of the claim, and has thus forced cormorant detractors to search for other rationales, the main one being the environmental effect, or “impact,” cormorants have on vegetation, and on species more or less dependent on such vegetation.

Introduction: Why Cormorants Can't Kill All Fish

Wildlife Management North and South of the Border

Energy Transference, Basic Physics and the Technology Prosthesis

Back in the Real World

Cormorants: Food Chains and Basic Ecological Principles

The Alewife, Alien Salmon and Trout, and the Double-Crested Cormorant

The Round Goby

NEXT » The Agricultural Subsidy

The Missing Predator Argument

Limiting Factors

Semi-Science and Wildlife Management

So ... What Do Real Scientists Say?


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