Oil and Fishing Industries Negotiate: Mediation and Scientific Issues
by Gerald Cormick and Alana Knaster
Summary written by: Conflict Research Consortium Staff
Citation: "Oil and Fishing Industries Negotiate: Mediation and Scientific Issues," Environment vol. 28, no. 10 (December 1986), pp. 6-15, 30
The discovery of oil reserves off the California coast sparked conflicts between the oil industry and local commercial fishermen. There was conflict over the increased water traffic, as seismic exploration boats surveyed areas, and supply vessels tried to use the fastest routes out to the oil platforms. Intersections with a fishing boat's course often resulted in damaged fishing nets and gear. The fishermen also felt that the acoustic signals used by the seismic exploration boats dispersed fish, and damaged eggs and larvae.
Rather than turn to a protracted and expensive court battle, the parties pursued mediation. The fishermen's factual claim that acoustic testing methods damaged fisheries posed a challenge to traditional mediation methods. To address the factual and scientific dispute, the parties established the Seismic Subcommittee. Equity issues were addressed by traditional negotiations in the Joint Committee..
Disputes over Facts
Initially the oil industry took the position that acoustic testing had no negative impact of fish resources. The fishermen reported an impact. The oil industry resisted agreeing to further research, feeling that such an agreement would be a tacit admission that there might be adverse effects. Both side presented data supporting their contradictory positions, and little progress was made.
As the Joint Committee began to report agreements on equity issues, the Seismic Subcommittee felt pressure to make progress also. Through the Subcommittee the parties agreed on a two-stage process. First, they would decide whether there was currently enough evidence of acoustic impacts on fish to merit further research. If so, the parties would then jointly develop a research project to investigate the impacts. The Subcommittee also decided that, should an impact be found, the issue of acoustic impact mitigation would be the responsibility of governmental agencies. And so the Subcommittee requested the involvement of ocean resource protection agencies, and of off-shore oil regulatory agencies.
In order to address the first task, the Subcommittee created the Fish Dispersal Committee, which convened a Science Panel. The Science Panel was composed of mutually acceptable, independent scientists. The Fish Dispersal Committee recruited scientists with stature in their fields, reflecting a diversity of opinions and approaches. Working with the scientists, the Committee developed an initial research design and hired a contractor to perform the research. The Science Panel reviewed the data and found that there was enough indication of an impact to warrant further research. Since it was the conclusion of jointly appointed, well- respected scientists, the oil industry accepted the possibility of an impact, and agreed to further research.
The Fish Dispersal Committee proceeded with its second task: developing a more comprehensive research project to determine the impact of acoustic testing methods on fish. Again, the Committee worked with the Science Panel to design a mutually acceptable research project. The Committee also worked together to prepare a request for proposals, review the proposals received, and choose a contractor. The Committee continued to meet and monitor the project's progress. Initial findings indicated a need for further study.
The Fish Dispersal Committee was then reconstituted as the Eggs and Larvae Committee, and began a substantially similar process of joint research. As with its first incarnation, the Eggs and Larvae Committee continues to meet and monitor the ongoing research. This continued oversight is important. When problems arise in carrying out the research (as they inevitably do), the parties can again negotiate mutually acceptable modifications to the project, and so maintain their joint commitment to the eventual findings.
The authors observe that "although some of the research findings failed to meet the expectations of particular industries or agencies, the participants' mutual commitment to a process that they had designed helped both the negotiators and their constituents to accept the results."[p. 13] The reputation and credibility of the scientists involved also helped legitimate both the research design and the findings.