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NOAA Technical Memorandum NMFS-AFSC-267

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We are not asking management questions


In today's world, humans face a myriad of serious problems. These problems are exemplified by the risks associated with the ongoing extinction crisis (including the risk of our own extinction), global climate change, oceanic acidification, overfishing, pollution, pandemics, and full-scale state-change in the biosphere. Our actions are, in varying ways, and to various degrees, contributing to such predicaments. We need guiding information to deal with the long-term consequences of our actions—consequences to our species' quality of life and survival as well as to that of various nonhuman systems (e.g., other species and ecosystems). A first step is that of asking management questions aimed at finding out how we can fit into our world sustainably, both as individual people and as a species—the human species. These questions must be asked, and they must be phrased specifically to guide and promote science that will produce clear, objective, and holistic answers that lead to effective action.

Are such questions being asked? In this paper, we report work in which we addressed this question by examining a randomly selected sample of 100 peer-reviewed papers. The six journals in which these papers were published were chosen because the journals state within their missions or objectives the importance of making scientific information available for use in management as action taken in regard to human interactions and impacts on other species, ecosystems or the biosphere. In each paper, we searched for evidence of a stated management question (involving appropriate decisions and action, as distinct from a research question involving the focus of science) and found none. Most of the papers made substantive contributions to understanding the general principle of complex interconnectedness as it applies to the reality of which everything is a part. However, when considering management implications, the majority of papers used terminology more consistent with management that ignores this principle. Instead, suggested action (management), whether overt or implied, almost always seemed to accept the objective of manipulating nonhuman systems without regard to the sustainability of the relevant impacts. There was little, if any, evidence of trying to find a sustainable mode of interacting with, and participating in, such systems to include the sustainability of these systems.

Asking proper management questions is one of the first steps toward finding the kind of information that will guide us toward realistic interactions and participation. Thus, we strongly recommend extensive changes in educational, managerial, and scientific realms to promote the asking of proper management questions. Such questions must meet the criteria of embracing the principle of complex interconnectedness, by accepting the responsibility of finding sustainable ways for humans to fit into, and interact with, nonhuman systems across all temporal, spatial, and hierarchical scales. Questions must be specific, avoid manipulation, seek holistic sustainability, and lead to measurable goals. For example, "At what rate can we sustainably harvest walleye pollock from the Eastern Bering Sea?" is far superior to "How can we manage walleye pollock to maximize profits?" Good management questions define the science that will provide answers that account for things holistically, objectively, and consistently.

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