On Baa Baa Black Sheep and POTUS’ hissy fits…
In the early 1980s, a fisheries scientist from the then MAFF Fisheries Laboratory in Lowestoft presented a novel assessment of the size of mackerel stocks to his overseas colleagues at the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea’s (ICES) headquarters in Copenhagen.
Although the principle behind the method was not new, it was newly applied to the mackerel stock and, in a nutshell, it required an estimate of the abundance of eggs produced during the mackerel’s spawning season in order to quantify the number of mackerel necessary to have produced them.
Although not immediately adopted, the egg production method has now been the mainstay of the ICES’ northeast Atlantic mackerel assessments for many years, with a huge effort put into the triennial mackerel egg surveys and estimation of the other biological parameters related to egg production. But it had a difficult birth.
It was rejected for use initially because it was unproven and relied on relatively few observations. When subsequent years’ data were available and some loose ends had been tied up, it was finally accepted as an appropriate assessment method for mackerel, notwithstanding what came to be known as ‘the million tonne mistake’ (see Postscript #2)!
Ironically, when originally presented, the most critical comments on the method came from the man-from-MAFF’s UK colleagues, albeit it from colleagues ‘north of the border’, who added spice to the rivalry between the senior Scottish and English scientists of that era.
As a result of the Caledonian criticism of his method, the man-from-MAFF wrote a vehement letter of complaint to the Director of the Marine Laboratory in Aberdeen, the late Alasdair McIntyre. In it, he wrote of his disappointment that fellow UK scientists were the most vocal critics of his work whereas other nationals were more amenable to it.
I was shown the letter many years ago and the reply (copies of both were held in the old registry of the Marine Laboratory, but I suspect the file holding them has long since been destroyed). I can’t recall the exact wording of the complaint, but it was pretty much a frustrated rant.
On receipt, Alasdair forwarded the complaint to the head of the laboratory’s Fish Team, Alan Saville (also since deceased), a herring scientist and the foremost critic of the new approach for mackerel, asking him to reply directly.
His riposte was blunt. He told the man-from-MAFF that his response to the criticism at ICES reminded him of a tantrum thrown by a toddler when its parents’ reaction to the child’s first ever rendition of Baa Baa Black Sheep did not receive the applause and approbation that he felt it deserved! Ouch!
I was reminded of this earlier this week when Donald Trump truculently called off his Presidential visit to Denmark because his plan to buy Greenland was labelled ‘absurd’ by leading Danish politicians. Trump (of all people) later framed the Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen’s comments as ‘nasty’.
Personally, I think even a toddler would have reacted with more maturity than POTUS.
Here’s the limerick…
So POTUS told the world he’d derail
A visit to the Danes because they’ll
Not accede to his whim
(When they pricked his thin skin),
‘Cos Greenland, they said, ain’t for sale!
Postscript #1: Saville’s harsh rejoinder to the man-from-MAFF was amusingly ill-timed as it preceded publication of the DAFS Marine Laboratory ‘green’ book, Developments in Fisheries Research in Scotland published by Fishing News Books.
It must have been a delightfully retributive occasion for the man-from-MAFF who reviewed it for the ICES’ Journal du Conseil, damning it with faint, if any, praise!
Postscript #2: The million tonne mistake. Imagine, if you will, a graph that looks like a triangle and think of the area under the triangle as representing the number of eggs produced in a mackerel spawning season; that’s the egg production curve. Now imagine the same triangle with a notch taken out of it where that notch represents the egg production of about one million tonnes of mackerel.
In the early days of the mackerel egg survey, a notched curve was the only one observed and scientists were unsure whether the notch was a genuine property of seasonal egg production or an artefact due to sampling error.
Tbe conservative approach was to err on the side of caution and to accept the lower (notched) estimate of stock size albeit with caveats. Sampling in subsequent years indicated the notch to be an artefact and the retrospective view of the stock size was increased accordingly by a million tonnes.
So, who was right? The scientists for taking a cautious approach with clearly explained reservations, or the pelagic fishing industry that christened it the million tonne mistake?
Answers on a postcard, please, to…