URG Responds to Unfounded Accusation of Bias

A columnist accused URG members of bias in the collection of survey data in the October edition of AFLOAT (read the original article). This accusation was without foundation or evidence and the editor has amended the article online on 15 Oct and has also committed to a correction in the next printed issue (read the amended article online or download the .pdf). URG responded with the following vigorous defense:

We refer to your article “Divers push marine park agenda” by David Lockwood. The article is misleading, incorrect on several counts, and provides no evidence to support the author’s assertions of bias in the collection of scientific data.

Underwater Research Group of NSW (URG) has been providing data to scientists for over 50 years. We have been involved in countless scientific programs, collecting specimens for the Australian Museum, data on fish and invertebrate populations, marine debris projects and many more. Our divers are highly trained in scientific methods; several of our current members are qualified marine scientists. We work with several major Universities and the Sydney Institute of Marine Science; during 2015 we were involved in no less than six marine science projects, all on a volunteer basis.

The author’s assertion that people in Sydney are catching fish, therefore our data are questionable, is fundamentally flawed. Catch data (how many fish people are catching) concentrate the figures by selection of the best fishing spots and the use of burley and fish finders, are limited to species which respond to the bait and fail to detect fish too small to be hooked. Such data are a poor indication of overall fish abundance and density and are scientifically invalid as a measure of species richness.

Whilst no method is perfect, Underwater Visual Census (UVC), the method we used in the surveys, is preferred by many scientists around the world as the best practical method to assess abundance and richness. Unlike catch data, sites are not selected to magnify the results – on the contrary, they are chosen by scientists to be representative of the wider area under study. A program involving a small number of surveys may not detect fish if they are scarce enough or patchy in their distribution, but this is still a meaningful result indicating these fish are not abundant in the area surveyed. An extensive survey program, such as that conducted by URG and marine scientists earlier this year, allows fish density ratios to be calculated with confidence.

Mr Lockwood may not like the results, but this does not change the facts and is no basis for an argument of bias. He fails to acknowledge that the data were collected by many people, including a team from the University of Sydney and divers from Perth, Melbourne and the NSW South Coast who attended during the survey period. Individual surveys involved multiple divers in order to collect information as accurately as possible.

Subsequent scientific analysis used sophisticated statistical techniques to ensure confidence in the findings. Two Universities analysed the data, using different designs and methods, yet found similar results. And the results should be no surprise ; they are supported by studies around the world, the most recent of which showed that well-designed and managed sanctuary zones have five times the number of large fish compared to unprotected areas.

As a magazine for boating enthusiasts, we are surprised and disappointed that AFLOAT allowed such poorly-researched, unfounded and divisive material to be published. Mr Lockwood works hard to separate “divers” from “fishers”, yet many divers enjoy fishing, and we’re sure many of your fishing readers enjoy a snorkel or SCUBA dive. Such attempts at divisiveness are unnecessary and out-of-touch with people who just love the water and enjoy many different recreational pursuits around Sydney.

URG is a long-standing club with a dedicated team of members who volunteer their time to support marine science projects. We collect objective data for scientists and managers in order to conserve our wonderful marine life; for the benefit of everyone who loves our oceans. Any assertion to the contrary fails to recognize our long history of contribution and is highly offensive and totally unfounded. We request that you formally acknowledge the flaws in the October article and issue a public apology to URG and all the people who gave their time to support this important research.